Lawyers and law firms have a reputation for resisting new things. Yet both have changed quite a bit in recent decades. Understanding these changes, and how to encourage future ones, was the topic of a presentation – Strategies for Change Management – that my colleague Jim Tuvell and I gave at the Pittsburgh Area ILTA Community event on February 19, 2015. (Thanks to Recommind for sponsoring the event.)

We answered a series of questions: What can we learn from past changes? From changes happening right now? What framework helps us think about change? And what are good change management strategies? Our slides appear at the bottom of this post.

By design, the slides need voice over, so, in truncated form, here are highlights of our narration:

  • Change is hard. People diagnosed with life-threatening disease frequently fail to change behaviors that would improve their health and extend their life. So why should we expect them to change how they work?
  • Law firms have changed dramatically over the last five decades, adding many new functions. These have mainly been institutional changes that did not have a big impact on what individual lawyers do. It is easier to add a new staff function than to get lawyers to change how they practice.
  • We explored changes – past and present – to see what we could learn from them. I relayed three stories from my own 1990s experience inside a large law firm to illustrate three different motivators:
    • Early (by 1988) widespread PC-adoption by lawyers was driven by top down management decisions, much cajoling, and some Tom Sawyer techniques to make PCs desirable.
    • Lawyers happily gave up paper in litigation, instead reviewing documents on-screen and using  full text search (via OCR). This was a function of a few motivated individual lawyers who saw the benefits of changing. Plus the firm provided some institutional support.
    • Lawyers entered their time punctually after a management edict that was backed up by sticks: withholding partner draw or taking associates off of direct deposit, plus “talking to’s”.
  • We noted that not all changes stem from deliberate initiatives to change. When law firms rushed in the late 1990s to adopt Internet email, it was because all their clients had. That’s closer to panic than considered or motivated change.
  • Changes now happening also inform how to motivate change
    • Consider where many large firm are with knowledge management (KM). After many mis-steps, most firms stopped trying to get lawyers to change what they do. Instead, they licensed enterprise search products such as Recommind’s Decisiv Search and rolled out an easy-to-use, browser interface. (Thankfully, the era of “every new or upgraded software is a nightmare ” has passed.)
    • Legal project management, pricing, and budgets are hot topics today. In a few firms, these initiatives are driven by forward-thinking partners who see competitive advantage. In others, “partners in pain”, that is, partners who have business at risk, drive the change, at least for their own practices.
  • From past and current changes, we derived a change framework, a four-quadrant approach that can map each change along two axes: (1) individual versus institutional action and (2) enabling versus transformative change. We mapped changes on this grid to illustrate the quadrant framework. Changes in the lower left are the easiest, upper right hardest.
  • For perspective on change in legal organizations, we looked to the consumer market. Consumers have changed quite dramatically, for example, rapid adoption of smartphones. But it’s not just technology. Think about what has happened to coffee in the US in the last 25 hours. Where consumers have changed, they do so because the change has a clear answer to the “What’s in it for me” question. Affordability, peer pressure (virality), and complete ecosystems also help.
  • Looking forward, we suggested that the foreseeable changes the legal market needs to make are primarily in the upper right quadrant: institutional and transformational. That makes them very hard. Our view is that staff have to choose battles carefully – they cannot cause these changes to happen unless firms and lawyers want to change. They can only support the change.
  • You can read the last few slides for our recipe for change management.