Breaking Down the Barriers to Change in a Post (During?) COVID World

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International Lawyers Network

Last week, we talked about the temptation to slide back into old habits as the world starts to open back up from quarantine. Things have changed, and they’ve changed dramatically, so there can be that desire to seek the familiar ways of doing things – but we really don’t have to. And with these Delta variants taking a firm hold on us, it will be more important than ever to be and stay flexible. I know that’s not something the legal industry is historically comfortable with, but we showed during the pandemic that we’re actually quite good at it. And that flexibility can be profitable for our firms (even if it’s a bit hard on our psyches). So what we DO need is both better mental health care within the legal industry (and self-care and boundaries) right along with continued moves towards a different way of being and thinking.

I know that’s making some of you uncomfortable and itchy. But I promise, it’s all going to be worth it in the end – we’ll all be better people, more happier and well-rounded, and even more profitable and valuable to our clients!

So how do we deal with some of these barriers to change when they’re coming from inside our firms?

Barriers to Change

Let’s look first at what some of the barriers to change ARE:

  • Change is hard (and maybe it’s not for us…): The pandemic was a prime example of this, even for me. How many of us watched and waited while other countries, other companies, other firms made decisions to shut down and go remote before we did? I remember having our Annual Conference looming on the horizon and holding on SO TIGHTLY to the idea that it would happen as delegates cancelled, until one morning I woke up and simply knew that I had to cancel the entire event. But it took me a little while to get there. So even when we know that change may be essential, there is a difference between identifying the issues and executing the solutions. Add to that the reality that most law firms operate as rather loosely affiliated silo-partnerships and not businesses, and you have a managing partner or committee essentially herding a bunch of cats. The analogy is used frequently for managing lawyers because it’s an apt one.

  • Success as justification: D. Casey Flaherty, legal operations consultant and founder of Procertas, is one of my favorite reads on this subject, and he’s written a lot about it. He suggests that powerful partners within firms use their success as the reason for refusing to change: “The pain just isn’t that acute for most rainmakers who can point to decades of empirical evidence that suggests they will be just fine. Given their stature, relationships, and time horizons, many of them are probably right.” Even though we saw that for many law firms, the last year was one of their most successful, we’re still going to hear that this was an anomaly and firms should return to what they know, and what was previously successful.

  • Clients leave quietly, or in increments: Law firms and lawyers often expect that their relationships with their clients are strong enough that if a client wanted to go elsewhere, they would inform them. But in-house counsel can often leave the relationship so incrementally that the slow burn isn’t enough incentive for firms to change. There is a surplus of good lawyers in the marketplace – and now, alternative service providers. So unless firms have a strong differentiating factor beyond “I’m great at what I do, and my clients like me,” they can’t be secure in their client relationships. The pandemic also presented the perfect opportunity for clients to leave – whether your relationship was fraught or not, a client could tell you that they were having a difficult year because of COVID, that they were making cutbacks or going in a different direction, and use that opportunity to look for other counsel.

  • There’s a lack of innovation: While the industry itself is seeing a great deal of innovation, from alternative service providers and some in-house counsel who are having to get creative, law firms, by and large, have struggled with this. I’ve spoken to a lot of lawyers who are all expected to expand their role from “legal” advisor to “business” advisor, which can mean identifying opportunities for their clients, introducing them to key relationships, and more, in addition to providing them with high-quality legal advice. For many lawyers, this is brand new territory and doesn’t even touch the technological and in-firm business advances they need to be making to stay relevant. These types of changes are challenging, and they were never given a rule book for how to make them. The pandemic also forced everyone to be innovative in a short period of time, so you and your colleagues may feel that you’ve used up all of your innovation efforts for a while – but this isn’t the time to stop.

The above barriers are not insignificant, but you can overcome them if you continue to focus on the reasons for change. Whether you find the current landscape exciting or not, even those of us who are the most adept at it can find it daunting and exhausting – plus, we’ve just been through and are still going through a global pandemic. Make no mistake, this in and of itself is daunting and exhausting.

So in the legal industry, where change is historically slow, when it happens (especially when it happens all at once as it did last year), it can be even more overwhelming. We want to take a break, but there are decisions to be made now and on a continuous basis if we want to ensure a productive and successful future for our firms.

Essential Lessons for Change

What’s next then?

There are three essential lessons for change that I’d like to touch on – two of them you can implement fairly straightforwardly, and the third will involve a bit more digging in. All of them require a commitment to follow-up and continued change.

Listen to Your Clients

This seems like a fairly obvious one, especially because I know that more than ever, lawyers have been connected to their clients over the last 18 months. But let’s systematize this lesson a bit, now that you’ve gotten into the habit.

This lesson is two-fold – first, establish a feedback loop with your clients about the matters that they’re handling, in order to deal with the barrier that we talked about above. There are lots of great consultants who can assist in creating a client feedback program with you and will act as third-party interviewers to get the candid feedback that you need to improve your service offerings.

Second, it’s more important than ever to undertake your clients’ opinions when making strategic business decisions (yes, really). Many firms are already bringing in their clients when deciding about relocating or redesigning office space or considering starting a new practice or industry group or expanding into a new geographic region. How are you incorporating your clients into your strategic decisions, so that your future aligns more closely with their success? Post-pandemic, office space is going to be one of the hottest topics we consider. And not only will you need to be discussing this with everyone on your team, from professional staff right up through the managing partner, but it will be worth chatting with your clients too. How are they handling the hybrid work situation? How will they want to handle meetings moving forward? What percentage of in-person contact do they want to have? We all agree that in-person connection isn’t going away (nor should it), but there is a lot of travel that we can do away with in the name of efficiency and health, and human safety. Have these conversations with your clients as well as your firm.

Differentiate Yourself

As we suggested above, it’s no longer sufficient to say that you’re a high-quality law firm with talented lawyers – that’s table stakes. Further, differentiation by practice or industry area is also starting to no longer be enough. Potential clients, and even current clients, need to have a reason to hire you or your firm over all others. Everyone is hungry for business. Differentiation isn’t just about marketing and branding – it’s about deciding about the business model you’re going to pursue as a firm. This goes beyond niche marketing, but about how your firm’s business model is ferociously supporting your clients and their businesses. If you’re not sure and it’s not blatantly apparent, start asking some of your key clients what they think separates you from all other firms in your market. Continue to refine your model and ask again. Ask incoming associates what made them choose your firm over others. Ask lateral hires the same question. Ask your existing partners why they love working there. Continue to refine your model until it is clear to everyone in the firm what separates you from everyone else, how you support your clients with that message and leaves no doubt in your clients’ minds.

Rethink Your Business Model

This can be the most challenging for lawyers and law firms because it’s hard to think of the law firm as a business. But it is. It’s essential to look critically at your firm as a business so that you’re offering real business and legal solutions to your clients in a practical and efficient way. This may mean outsourcing certain functions, investing in technology heavily over the next few years, looking at contract lawyers, maintaining a strong balance sheet, providing strong and transparent leadership, hiring laterals conscientiously, having a hybrid model. Working on your firm’s business model is likely the place where you’ll see the most pushback from within the firm, and will require the most patience and grit, but it will also show the biggest dividends when it comes to benefiting from the current marketplace. The hybrid model may be one of the most contentious ideas in the legal industry, but recent studies have indicated that 40% of the workforce is looking for another job – the pandemic has made a lot of people rethink the work that they’re doing, and if their current company or firm doesn’t support the type of work or lifestyle that they value, then there are enough companies and firms out there that will. This is why it’s critical to talk to the members of your firm when making big decisions about how you want to come back and move forward – not just once, but continuously.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the past year, it’s that flexibility is more important than we ever could have realized. Funny enough, I said that a couple of years ago too – at that time, I said,

those firms that are the most successful today are those that are flexible and responsive, and able to collaborate with their clients as business partners. That’s not just true for today but will be true for tomorrow too. Flexibility translates to being open to market shifts, advances in technology, and adapting your partnership/business model to the needs of clients and the marketplace. The more flexible and adaptive firms can be, the more prepared they will be for whatever the future holds – whether that’s big changes, or small ones.”

If we continue to be open and flexible, have faith in our firms and our colleagues, and believe that continuous change is possible, we’ll be able to see additional value added to our firms, even during and post-pandemic. Stay tuned next week to see how to battle barriers within the firm when it comes to people and their styles of change.

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