Making change happen in law firms - why is it so hard?
A good starting point is to consider what marks law firms out as businesses – and there are many characteristics which are not all helpful for making change happen:
Partnerships consist of self-employed owners of the business. Moves to LLP status and managerial trends towards a more corporate regime have not worked their way into the culture of a number of firms yet.
The way law firms report their results, reward their partners and pay their taxes all seem to conspire towards a short term approach from year to year, which may not encourage risk taking or long term investment.
There is no perceived crisis in many firms. Incentive to change is heightened when people are convinced of the need for it – not obvious when many firms are doing well. Even when there is compelling evidence of adverse trends, in margin for instance, there will be many partners who prefer the prospect of a slightly smaller profit share than the pain of changing the way they carry out their day to day work.
It’s no good just telling them… In a law firm setting people need to be won over to change. Without that, direction will be ignored. BUT – The world is not standing still, and we detect a new readiness in successful firms to embrace change.
Many lawyers report demand from clients for “more for less”, reflecting pressures those clients are under. They are not content to see the status quo maintained.
All law firms face competition for their services, from within the profession and from non law-firm entrants. Many of those competitors are embracing new ways to deliver legal services. The firm that ignores those does so at its peril.
External events – Brexit is a current example – demonstrate to a critical majority in law firms that the world is changing, so the agility to change to meet new challenges is now seen as a core competence of the successful firm.
Technology presents opportunities for law firms to re-shape the way they carry out legal work. The spectrum ranges from relatively traditional case management through document automation to artificial intelligence. We will all know of examples of technology enabling a completely fresh offering to come to market.
At 3Kites we have experience of change management within law firms and we appreciate that change does not just happen without a carefully crafted change management programme. Key elements include:
Preparation. Build the case for change and plan the project with care. Identify specific objectives and express clearly what success will look like. Recognition within the firm both of the compelling need for change and the potential impediments is helpful.
Take time to think about the impact on all those affected (not just the obvious ones). In the setting of a law firm, where change is to an extent voluntary, the old expression “What’s in it for me?” is relevant. Ensure that the interests of all those affected are taken into account.
Communicate. Work out a communication plan and make sure it is delivered before, during and after the change initiative.
Stick with it! Change initiatives are often thought of as “projects” with project methodology applied. That is all very well but don’t allow yourselves to think it is all over just because something has been implemented. This applies whether it be an IT initiative or a business challenge such as a merger. Successful implementation is in jeopardy until the change is completely embedded, which may take longer than you can believe!