Every business, from every sector, is dealing with rapid and disruptive change. The legal community is not exempt.
Attorney Sarah Kellogg, in a Washington Lawyer article stated, “the legal profession is experiencing an era of turbulence and transformation. … These changes are significant, even revolutionary, and they will be magnified exponentially in years to come.”
Attorney Mark Cohen, in a Forbes article, stated , “Law’s insular culture is being reshaped by outside forces—consumers. Legal buyers… have been profoundly affected by advances in technology, globalization, and the effects of the global financial crisis.”
Your firm’s future success depends on its ability to recognize and respond to both the obvious and subtle shifts in your internal and external environment. That’s why building a change-ready law firm is not just a nice thing to do; it’s necessary for your firm’s survival.
Skills that Made your Firm Successful can Sabotage its Ability to Change
You may think “we have been a successful firm for 40, 50 or 100 years, we will survive.” It’s true, you might, but without learning new change-leadership skills the odds are not in your favor. Research exploring manager’s experience with leading and implementing change found existing skills and personal capacities that are appropriate and adequate for operational or professional roles were not sufficient for managing a change event or situation. For operational leaders to become effective change-leaders they need:
- A higher level of emotional resilience.
- Advanced interpersonal and communication skills.
- The ability to work with ambiguity and the conflicts that arise during change.
- Knowledge and the ability to work with the human dynamics of change.
Your firm may also face another hurdle with change—the lawyer personality. Dr. Larry Richard, a principal at Altman Weil, found that some personality traits that make lawyers good lawyers can, if not managed well, inhibit change.
His work revealed lawyers in large firms score on the 90th percentile for skepticism. They also score higher on a sense of urgency and tend to be somewhat more impatient than the general public. Dr. Richard found sociability scores were also lower. Lawyers scored around 12% compared to the general public who averaged around 50%.
None of these traits are inherently bad. However, they can cause blind spots for creating a firm able to respond to a changing environment. For example, you may be skeptical that artificial intelligence (AI) will replace lawyers. Therefore, instead of exploring where AI may fit into your law practice, you dismiss it as something that won’t happen.
Another potential blind spot is viewing the emotional response to change as soft. As a result you minimize, or worse, overlook completely the emotional element of change and push through changes without enough people readiness. A lack of readiness is a major contributor to organizational change failure. You implement changes, but they don’t stick, costing you thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars in time and money without a return on your investment. Each time you implement a change that doesn’t stick or deliver on the intended result you increase the likelihood of creating a change-cynical versus a change-ready organization.
Understanding Change Innovative versus Change Cynical Organization
In my book, “Launch Lead Live: The Executive’s Guide to Preventing Resistance and Succeeding with Organizational Change,” I explored the change-innovative and the change-cynical organization. I based this exploration on the research of Dr. Kilian Bennebroek Gravenhorst. His research into organizational change capacity identified five types of organizations. The most common type of organization was the cynical organization. The least common type of organization, but the one that had the greatest advantage, was the innovative.
The key differences between these two types of organizations is the way people in the organization view change. Employees in a cynical organization view change as stressful, disruptive, and a struggle. The result is employees who are slow to engage with change and focus on the status quo. Leaders in this type of organization experience high levels of negativity and skepticism when they announce a change.
Employees in a change innovative organization view change as necessary and want to contribute. They don’t experience high levels of stress, feel more in control, and actively work to adopt the change. Change is less disruptive to the daily operation of the business. Leaders believe they have the skills and feel competent to lead and support the changes needed.
Firms that can become change-ready will move through change with less disruption. They can also use change as their competitive advantage.
Three Actions to Move from Change-Cynical to Change-Ready
There is no magic bullet for enabling a change-ready law firm. It takes unlearning current ways and learning new ways of leading and enabling change. However, here’s a little fun fact. It takes as much work and effort to create a change cynical law firm as it does a change-ready law firm.
- Assess your firm’s current approach, leadership ability, and capacity for change
- Create and enable skilled change leaders within and among your lawyers, assistants, and other personnel
- Ask different questions. Change-ready organizations ask: what do we need to do to ensure we can recognize and respond to shifts in our internal and external environment? What will we need to do to ensure our people are prepared and ready to move through the change journey?