How to Create Lasting Change in Your Law Firm

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International Lawyers Network

Are we STILL talking about change??

Yes, we are. And for two reasons – first, we’re really still in a global pandemic (the CDC is just about to recommend that vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors again if some of us have even stopped) and second, we all know the joke that the only constants are death and taxes, but truthfully, the only constants are death, taxes, and change.

So, here we are.

We’ve tackled a lot about how to address change within your firms, but the one thing we haven’t looked at closely is what to do once you’re deep into it – which may be where firms are if they’re committed to sticking with moving to remote work.

How do we create lasting change in our firms?

Change is Interdependent

First, we have to understand that any change we make, big or small, isn’t going to be a single change. Whatever we do has a ripple effect. For the purposes of this post, we’ll look at remote work, because I see that as the change that most firms are considering at the moment, but this is true for any change you’re looking at, whether it’s bringing in a lateral partner, starting a new practice or industry group, or changing the way your lawyers manage their projects.

Firms have already begun to consider the knock-on effects of remote work – what does this mean for our culture, will we reduce our office space, will every partner have an office going forward, when are our leases up, how does that impact the contractors we work with, and so on. All of these interdependencies are questions worth considering – but simply because there may be challenges there doesn’t mean that the change isn’t worth pursuing. And on the counter side, simply because you may find efficiencies or cost-savings by making the change, doesn’t mean that you should necessarily pursue the change. All of the impacts should be considered.

It’s all about culture

Culture is one of the biggest and it’s hard to address because while we all feel it at our firms and organizations, it’s not something tangible that we can often put a name to. But it powerfully influences the behavior of the professionals who work at our firms. There are two types of cultural issues that come into play when change is happening – when new practices are grafted on to old cultures and when new practices replace old cultures – and to be clear, I don’t mean law practices here.

When we talk about the move to remote work, what kinds of practices might change at your firm? Would you mandate certain days that everyone will be in the office (though not all partners would have a physical space to work in)? Would you allow some partners to be fully remote? Would you be intentional about hosting more in-person social functions to help create that camaraderie? Would you delegate more of the “teamwork” to your practice or industry group leaders, rather than to the firm at large? How do you balance the firm culture while meeting the need for remote work?

Note that cultural changes come last and are a by-product of other things that happen with time – but they are something that you want to consider as you move down this path.

Seamlessly Successful

Let’s say that you’ve done it. We’ve either weathered the pandemic or coping with COVID has become a way of life (we mask up, get our yearly vaccines, and work remotely for the colder months). Your firm is a hybrid of working in person and working remotely and you’re efficient, successful, and regularly embracing change. What does that look like? John P. Kotter in Leading Change (full disclosure, I did NOT like this book, but there were some solid ideas in here) suggests that the organization of the future is all about change:

  • Rather than change being hard and scary, it’s something that the firm or organization embraces and puts a priority on. It either contributes to your previous noble cause or you’ve found a new one to be passionate about.
  • Everyone at the firm or organization, regardless of their position or status, feels comfortable in sharing open and honest feedback about the direction leadership is taking.
  • Failure is not a word to be feared but to be embraced. Everyone has the room to try new things and the firm or organization encourages a “culture of learning” that allows for understanding why the end result happened.
  • There’s teamwork at the top – no one person is coming in to save everyone.
  • The firm or organization is about developing leaders, not managers (yes, this even applies in law firms with lawyers).
  • There’s an entrepreneurial spirit, where everyone is empowered to contribute.

Embracing change is a powerful force. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but discomfort here isn’t a bad thing. Change leaders need to walk the walk – you need to believe that you’re effecting change for the good of the firm or organization, articulate the plan, demonstrate that you’re on the right path, and avoid any claims of early success (because as we’ve seen above, that sneaky cultural piece is going to take some time to catch up).

Where are you on the path to change?

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