Driving Organizational Change Within Your Law Firm: Collaboration, Consensus, and Buy-In

by JD Supra Perspectives

"Great leaders do not operate in a silo..."

Variations of the words "collaborate," "consensus" and "buy-in” are common in the vernacular of most modern law firms.

These terms frequently show up in job profiles, particularly in the sections highlighting traits and success factors for the ideal candidate. Some law firms have been described as "suffering from death by consensus" or "highly collaborative" when describing a culture where decision making and change can be painfully slow and initiatives fail to launch. Yet, under the right conditions, honing these three skills can improve an individual’s and their organization's overall effectiveness in achieving meaningful progress.  

Given the inherent nature of partnerships, getting anything accomplished almost always involves the support, input and efforts of others.

Organizations are living, breathing organisms and law firms in particular are their own special animal. Given the inherent nature of partnerships, getting anything accomplished almost always involves the support, input and efforts of others. For business services leaders, it can often seem that the majority of their time and energy is spent on trying to move their agendas forward. It can be discouraging when these efforts don’t bear fruit, resulting in leaders tabling what could be worthwhile initiatives.  

Collaboration, consensus and buy-in (CCBI, for our purposes) all serve a role in driving progress. The trick is to understand the what, when, how and why for applying each. These valuable tactics require a substantial investment of time and energy, but knowing how and when to utilize different tactics will help you determine how to successfully streamline your approach to gain the highest ROI.  

High levels of emotional intelligence play a significant role in an individual’s ability to lead effectively. Those individuals’ ability to balance relationships and results in problem-solving, decision-making and change management are critical to success. The following behaviors embody high EQ and provide the basis for becoming skilled at building consensus, obtaining buy-in and working collaboratively:

  • listening
  • managing emotions
  • being open to others' perspectives
  • building trust
  • asking the right questions
  • focusing on the end-game


Building consensus involves getting all stakeholders, or at least a majority, to agree. This method for decision-making is used less in organizations, including law firms, as they become larger and more geographically diverse, with more complex issues requiring increasingly sophisticated business solutions. At the individual or team level, though, there are still plenty of opportunities to effect change, and they often require support from your colleagues. Accordingly, there is immense potential for “consensus-makers” to see real results.

A solid foundation of credibility and trust is key to successfully influencing others to endorse your ideas. This kind of foundation is built over time and requires an investment in building reciprocal relationships with key individuals. More than that, when their reputation is on the line, they will look to your track record of good judgment and results to determine whether your approach is worthy of their support. Commit to relationship building by identifying key individuals within the organization and systematically seeking to build rapport, invest the time to learn (and care!) about what they do, what's important to them and ways to connect with them on a personal and professional level. 

People will know if you are not genuine...

It is important not to confuse an intentional and strategic approach to relationship-building with an absence of authenticity. People will know if you are not genuine and your efforts to build trust will accomplish the opposite effect.  


The concept of buy-in is a bit more elusive than consensus and involves a more thoughtful approach. Buy-in is the art of gaining others' support and commitment for an idea, direction or initiative, not necessarily from others' 100% agreement. 

Rather, it is given, sometimes grudgingly, when others feel like their feedback and ideas were both solicited and considered in a fair and equitable manner before an ultimate decision was reached. Naturally, remaining open to others' perspectives and willing to compromise or alter an approach can mean the difference between a stalemate and a completed project. Perhaps more than simply executing the initiative, recognizing the value of another's perspectives can amount to a more nuanced final product, the only additional expense being your pride. 


Collaboration may arguably be the most fun and rewarding approach to drive change, strategy and fresh initiatives. While buy-in and consensus are used to gain support after an idea or initiative has been put forward, collaboration involves diverse stakeholders coming together to solve a business issue.  Their unique agendas, perspectives and even budgets all come together to create a melting pot where unexpected solutions become possible. 

Collaboration may arguably be the most fun and rewarding approach to drive change...

Collaboration is a team exercise; it's not about one individual trying to push his or her agenda. Collecting a diverse group of colleagues isn’t enough to truly cultivate collaboration, it requires the following:

  • A clearly defined statement of the business issue
  • A bold imperative relating the issue to the business strategy or vision
  • An inclusive, representative group of key stakeholders invested in the outcome
  • Accountabilities for delivering results including timeline, approach and allocation of resources
  • Team, not individual, success metrics

How to get it all done

The activities, energy and political capital required to effectuate change and drive the organization forward can feel daunting. Outlined below are some strategies to maximize your effectiveness to gain results, but also relieve some of the stress and burn-out which can occur from an overload of CCBI.  

  1. Prioritize: With your firm's strategic vision as your goal, clearly define your team's priorities for the year, including a detailed analysis of the resources required. A healthy balance of aggressive and realistic is recommended. Include the perspectives of key members of your team (who may ultimately lead one or more projects) to lay the foundation for collaboration and buy-in required of your team to execute on these initiatives. Evaluate the initiatives by weighing factors including: (1) value, (2) resources, (3) cost, (4) risk and (5) ROI. Push off or eliminate initiatives that don't make the top cut.  
  2. Perspective: Great leaders do not operate in a silo; they work across functions with firm leadership to determine the organizational requirements, value and impact on the firm's business objectives.  Manage up if you need to, but ensure initiatives across business services functions are aggregately considered in a collaborative environment resulting in a clearly defined master plan. (The first-step in achieving buy-in from your colleagues happens here.)
  3. Plan: Empower and delegate members of your team to lead these key initiatives. It's your responsibility to clearly define the "why" and the "what" of the initiative. Coach them through defining the "who" and the "how," including a strategy to gain the organization's support for the initiative. Determine the most effective tactics of CCBI and develop a plan for engaging support before, during and at the end of the initiative. Disillusioned employees, especially at the manager level, who invest time to develop solutions only to find their leader can't or didn't get buy-in, often struggle with frustration and disengage from work, resulting in the turn-over of valued team members. 

As a law firm leader, the intentional, ongoing development of your (and your team's) emotional intelligence is critical for success. 

The ability to understand yourself and manage your own emotions effectively is the first step. Only with a clear perspective of yourself can you move to the second phase, which requires an openness to the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of others.

Finally, the ability to effectively pull these skills together to build strong relationships supported by credibility and trust is key to leadership effectiveness. The organizational credibility built through this process will position you to strategically and proactively build consensus, gain buy-in and effectively collaborate to drive the change required to lead your firms into the future.


[Carol E. Crawford is Managing Director of Calibrate Legal.]


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