Managing Legal Change Initiatives: Strategic approaches to introducing change

by Ark Group

The following piece was authored by Patrick J. McKenna for Ark Group’s publication Managing Legal Change Initiatives. Patrick will also be the chairperson for Ark Group’s The Legal Innovator’s Dilemma conference taking place June 25th in Chicago

The following represents comments that I offered in a recent interview and are based on my three decades of working with large law firms internationally who invariably are trying to execute a particular strategy, implement a new initiative or roll out some new program and feeling frustrated by inevitable, internal resistance.

Change goes against the grain of any firm’s status quo.  And most law firms have powerful immune systems that throw up multiple barriers to turning new ideas into commercial realities.  It takes understanding some of these basic change hurdles and intense perseverance in order to make anything really happen.

 QUESTION: Why, do you think, firms find change to be so difficult?

 I have a very profound answer to that question . . . Because change is SO bloody difficult! 

 Now I appreciate that that sounds flippant, but I see many, many firms underestimating just how difficult it really is to bring about change.  In particular I see new firm leaders thinking that they can easily change their firm’s culture, or get their practice groups operating more effectively, or introduce a new level of client transparency – and then operating as though just willing it to happen will be sufficient.

We have books out there that prescribe eight simple rules you need follow to bring about change.  Now that sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Only problem, according to the most recent research from McKinsey, is that in the twenty years since Professor Kotter’s book has been out, the success rate for bringing about change has not improved one little bit – 70 percent of all change initiatives still fail (and by the way that’s in a corporate “do as I say or you’re fired” type environment)

Meanwhile, in professional service firms we continue to see all of these articles that tell law firms, “change or die” like these authors all think that that is supposed to be some kind of motivator.

Let’s see if I can offer one simple example of the enormity of this change challenge.

Imagine with me for a moment as you are reading this, that heaven forbid, you develop pains in your chest and you have a heart attack… but we quickly get you to a world-class cardiac specialist and you undergo a coronary bypass.  Not quite as scary as it once was, as I’m told that over 1.5 million Americans have this surgery every year.

Following your surgery, your doctor tells you that in order for you to prevent pain, avoid a repeat of the surgery, and essentially to prolong your life, you have to adopt a healthier lifestyle:  which essentially means no smoking, drinking, over-eating, or stress and you must start exercising. 

Follow me?

I’ve related this same scenario to some large audiences that I’ve had the honor of speaking to, and asked for a show of hands: “How many of you could faithfully follow your doctor’s directions?”

Keep in mind, this really is a matter of change or die!  And at least 95 percent (if not all) of the hands go up.

But . . . unfortunately according to Ed Miller, retired CEO at John Hopkins,

less than 3 percent of those 1.5 million Americans can sustain the change and therefore live beyond a few more years. In most cases less than five years.

And notice that is not a 70 percent failure rate for change.  That is a 97 percent failure rate!

Now, I have surveyed firms on this question: think back to some important initiative that didn’t quite turn out to be the roaring success that firm leadership had hoped.  “What were the primary obstacles your firm faced as it tried to implement the new strategic initiative?”  And to help, everyone was given 17 different choices.

The most popular response coming from 94 percent of the respondents and over 74 law firms was that: “They involved changes that some lawyers were not motivated to make.” For example: they required a generous amount of non-billable time, or they took lawyers out of their comfort zone, or they threatened to change the status quo of some lawyers in the firm.

Charles Darwin had this famous saying that I think needs to be posted on the wall of every law firm boardroom – “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

QUESTION: What are some of the more common hurdles you have observed or experienced in bringing about change?

I look at this question from two levels – the leadership and then the partnership.

At the top of the firm

An old friend Dr. Jack Zenger has some interesting research accumulated on more than 65,000 leaders/managers measuring 49 various leadership behaviors, with data comparing older, more experienced leaders with their younger counterparts.  The bottom line from Jack’s research is that leaders, on average, do not become more effective with age.  They become more experienced, but not more effective!

Jack’s data shows that many older leaders become less receptive to feedback and change over time – while younger leaders seem more inclined to embrace change and exhibit great skills at marketing their new ideas.  Now, it probably could be argued that this happens specifically because of the younger leaders’ lack the experience (they don’t know what they don’t know), and that causes them to be more optimistic about their proposals for change.  But, nevertheless, it is what it is.

Generally I see older leaders (myself included) who are quick to point to others who resist change.  It’s much harder to recognize or admit to our own change resistance.  And so for anyone who built a firm’s past successes, the often (I think unconscious) temptation to preserve the status quo can be overwhelming. 

Now, for those senior leaders who really do believe they can bring about change, I see too many change efforts fail simply because firm leadership launches some initiative, then moves straight on to the next topic.  That leaves partners wondering if this was really something important or just the flavor of the month.  It isn’t enough to focus some time on it.  Leadership needs to say, “this is our priority and we are going to make darn sure we work long and hard to make things happen”.

Among the partners

One of the things I hear far too often, is this fear of failure, of making a mistake.  A partner related to me recently about how he was reluctant to pursue exploring a new niche area in self-driving vehicles, because if things should not pan out, he will forever be stigmatized.  And that was the precise word he used – “stigmatized!”

I relate this fear of making a mistake to our professional mindset and desire to get things perfect – to get things just right, the very first time – which is highly desirable in work on behalf of clients, but absolutely paralyzing with anything new or entrepreneurial.  In yet, I continually see lawyers striving for perfection from the outset and unwilling to go public until they are entirely happy with the new initiative.

Competence is another enemy of change.  Many professionals get locked into a successful mode of behavior and naturally resist change because change threatens to make them less competent.  As professionals, we all like being competent – that is who we are and sometimes that is all we’ve got.  So just think of the risks that come with embracing anything new.  A fresh approach to serving clients, one that would prevent me from maximizing my billable hours and force me to be more productive and practice differently.  Yeah . . . let me think about it.

Finally, all of this manifests itself in too much short-term thinking and the pursuit of immediate gratification.  Respectfully, I think many firms have atrophied in their ability to think and act strategically.  It’s all about immediate results.  Too many firms seem to have lost the habit of investing in their future.

QUESTION: What definitely does not work in introducing change?

In my survey of firms, the second question we asked was: Think back to some important initiative that didn’t quite turn out to be the roaring success that firm leadership had hoped.  “What specific actions did your firm take to try to further this strategic initiative?”  Everybody was given another 16 different choices.

For this question, the most popular response from 76 percent was: “Most of what had been done boiled down to multiple emails, memos, presentations and talking points about the need for change.”

I think what this clearly indicates is that we continue to subscribe to models for leading change that simply don’t work.  In this example we find ourselves, (unconsciously perhaps) trying to overwhelm our colleagues with data.  We give them facts, statistics, figures, flowcharts in amongst our rousing discourses for why we must, as a successful firm, adapt to some new change.

We like to think that these facts (as we perceive them) will convince partners to change – that our colleagues are essentially rational if given accurate information.  How often do you hear someone advise that you need to make a sound “business case” for what needs to be done?  So, we believe that if we provide relevant data about the issue, present a business case and sensible recommendations, our colleagues will just immediately take action.

Now if your partners should have doubts or disagree (and you can be assured that many will), we take that as a clear sign that we haven’t yet done a good job of presenting the evidence. 

So, when partners don’t immediately get on-board with any suggested course of action, what do we do?

We try harder to persuade them. We try to give them even more data. We keep doing the same thing… only more of it.  And, we turn up the volume.  We explain it over and over again. After all, you’ve all heard from those communications experts who tell us that you can never over-communicate your message!

Unfortunately, this seldom seems to work.  Because, if we think about it, it’s built upon an assumption that I’m right and those of my partners who “simply don’t get it” (and how often have you heard or perhaps uttered those words?) or “don’t see the light” are wrong.  That's an approach that all too often turns the exchange into a contest over whose idea or beliefs will win.

And sometimes even worse, it hardens the views of those opposed:  “Hell will freeze over before I get on board with that proposition.”

QUESTION:  How do you develop a sense of urgency that gets partners’ attention?

Two things I’ve learned that I think many firms overlook: One is to remember that your partners often come into any new change carrying the baggage of many past failures; and secondly that those partners are often highly skeptical of any change proposals coming from management.

There’s this natural skepticism among partners – “here comes another management change initiative.” I can report that I’ve personally witnessed a number of instances where some young, junior professional goes to a senior and asks “what’s this all about?” only to hear the senior say “head down, billables up . . . this too will pass”.

When I first started working with law firms some thirty years ago, a very wise, elder statesman, the founder of a rather large firm said to me, “McKenna, there is only one thing that you need to keep in mind if you are going to be successful in consulting to lawyers.” I said, “Oh and what is that?” He said, you need to burn this into your brain: “No lawyer ever salutes, endorses, gets excited about, or enthusiastically supports any idea, program, initiative, plan, new direction or change... that they themselves have not been part in formulating”.

Therefore the challenge is – how do I get these professionals, my team mates, meaningful involved in the change that needs to happen, such that they can see their fingerprint somewhere on the final course of action that we are all about to take together. 

In other words, people support what which they help create.  Too often management is guilty of making a decision then feigning buy-in.  That just doesn’t work.

Fundamentally, what I see effective firm leaders do, and I’ve watched this closely over many years, is to essentially frame the problem, issue, situation, or opportunity such that the key question from the firm leadership becomes: “please help us think this through, how do we make this work?” If you close off resistance, you’re saying “we’ve already made our decision, we’re not interested in hearing from you”. 

In other words, the best leaders find ways to get the change out there, subtly, then listen their partners’ views and promote as much discussion as possible.  They view resistance as a gift rather than a problem. You want to invite resistance, bring it to the surface, make it safe to express. After all, you may not have completely thought through all of the elements of some change initiative. Any resistance may actually offer some suggestions about how to make the change flow even more smoothly.

Some of that may involve one-on-one communication.  Keep in mind, that at the most personal level, change equals loss.  Every change usually represents a loss of some kind.  The loss – real or perceived – might involve esteem, money, status, relationships, or other factors. Who feels threatened that they might be losing something? What is that, and is that threat genuine, or is it just a misperception on their part? And, if it is real, it should be put on the table. Acknowledge there’s going to be a loss. Keep nothing hidden. 

You only get them on board to the extent that they see that going in the new direction is better than the status quo. You can try to persuade them and we’ve talked about how well that works. Or you subtly find ways to get them to come to that recognition of their own volition. 

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that any change effort is a numbers game. You’re never going to get everyone on board. Abandon that thought right now. To the extent that you get enough of the significant or power partners on board, the rest will follow. 

QUESTION: Can you share some approaches that firm leaders have found to be effective?

As I’ve seriously studied this for some time, I’ve identified over 26 different, what I’ll call change levers, that any leader has at their disposal and that can be utilized to stimulate some “healthy” tension within the firm. No one lever, by itself, is likely to do the job, but utilizing a number of these can make a huge difference.

Let me give you a couple of real-world examples.

1. Bring in outside resources to speak on new developments.

I remember one managing partner who very early into his tenure organized a monthly lunch for partners – but attendance was optional. Participants could take part through audio or video conferencing. He would always invite a speaker, for example the managing partner of an accounting firm, an academic doing some relevant research, or an important client. And, speakers were deliberately chosen for their provocative content. It was clear, if you followed where he was going, that he was trying to educate his partners about the changing environment, what was going on out there and subtly direct their attention to very specific issues. Following one of these luncheons the hallways were usually buzzing for days about the particular speaker and the content discussed.  That was this firm leader’s way of “ripening” particular issues, until pretty soon partners were coming to him and asking him when the firm was going to take action on certain matters.  But for him to have led the charge, he would likely have been doomed. So, I think your change initiative often has to be subtle, almost like a political grass roots movement, nurturing, and educating people and getting them to push the call for action.

2. Launch a pilot project.

Rather than trying to launch a full-blown change effort, start with something small and admit you don’t know if it is going to work or not.  I’ve seen this work in a number of firms trying to introduce business development training. They’ll say, “we would like you to come and help us assess if this is going to work. We will run a couple of sample sessions, and we need you to sit in wearing two hats; one as a participant and one as someone who will critique this for us.” When you give people that kind of power and respect, they take it seriously. You are then in a position to say, “that session didn’t work, but did you like the idea? How can we do it differently so it will work?” Now you’re not talking about whether we will make the change, do the training, but you have now gravitated to how we will do the training.  That’s a huge step.

3. Start a new ritual, ceremony or procedure to shape intended behavior.

They tell a story about the old Reed Smith firm where they were trying to incite partner collaboration. “Being collaborative”, by their definition, was that if someone needed help with something, the help was freely given, genuine and not just because the individual got to bill their time to some client. When you walked into their Pittsburgh reception area they have this huge lion, known as the Shaw Lion. Firm leadership decided to create miniature Shaw Lions, about the size of your fist, made out of pewter.  Once a year all the equity partners would vote on that lawyer in the firm who made the greatest contribution to helping them personally and their practice, and they awarded that lawyer the Shaw’s Lion. I can report, from having one of those people in a room and discussing the highlight of their professional practice, that I witnessed a lawyer in his early fifties relate to his colleagues about the year he received this award… with tears in his eyes.  Talk about emotion driving change and the idea of what you reward! Unfortunately, too many people take that to mean “if we throw money at the issue people’s behaviors will change.” If you celebrate people’s contributions in a public way, that changes behavior.

4. Show or stimulate examples of what the future might look like.

At a Texas-based firm engaged in some serious strategic planning, the Strategic Planning Committee put out a call out for volunteers – associates and junior partners, roughly between the ages of 30 to 45, to sit on a couple of self-organizing task forces.  Each task force was then asked to develop a written scenario to specifically identify in detail, “what the legal profession would look like in the year 2020.” They were then asked to present their scenarios at a special partner’s meeting which was focused on the theme of “where the firm was going.”  Words cannot describe how impressed the partners were or how that initiative helped inject new thinking and ideas into the firm’s strategic plan.

 5. Initiate an internal survey (identify some troubling concerns/aspirations)

One AmLaw 100 firm was particularly troubled when it found itself at the bottom of a published ranking concerning associate dissatisfaction.  Recognizing that the results spoke to a need to modify certain aspects of the culture of their organization, the firm turned to Dr. Daniel Dennison one of the leading authorities on organizational culture.  With Dennison’s help the firm administered a behavioral survey throughout the firm, involving partners, associates and support staff – identifying the firm’s strengths and weaknesses across 60 distinct areas from the importance of core values and the firm’s team orientation, to the efforts made to promote professional development and the degree to which innovation was encouraged.  The survey allowed the firm to identify specific areas needing remedial attention and created the internal enthusiasm for making small changes that resulted in the firm’s associate satisfaction scoring in the top quartile - one year later.

Always keep this in mind.  We’re likely to take a different approach when we start to think about change from the perspective of: ‘what would work on me; somebody harping at me, or somebody who leads me to start behaving and/or thinking about an issue in a way that is in my own best interests?’ 

QURSTION:  How does one fit their leadership style to the challenge?

If I had to choose one thing, and at first blush it may seem simplistic, it would have to be shaping your firm’s culture to embrace change.  And one way to think about this is in the language that we use – in other words how do we use language to shape our collective thinking.  What you do and say as a Leader has far more influence over the success or failure of a change than anything else.

Let me tell you what happened to me.

In an earlier life, I was a vice-president and director of a Canadian-based, public company in the telecommunications industry.  I had the good fortune of working with a rather progressive, very successful CEO who held some very strong beliefs.  One of those beliefs, that he preached to all of his senior team, repeatedly, was that upon first being presented with any new idea or proposed course of action, he would say, “You have ‘no intellectual integrity" voicing a personal opinion that suggests that you know whether it will work or not – because the reality is that you do NOT know for certain – and even if that same idea has been tried before – say, only last year – in this firm or some other firm and failed.  That still is not determinative of whether the idea will fail here and now”

He taught us that you only display intellectual integrity (he loved that term) by asking and answering three sequential questions:

1) Not “will this work”, but “how do we make this work?” (which you will notice provokes a whole different mindset).  He believed you start with a focus on “possibility” not “probability or profitability”

2) “What’s the worst that could happen?” (let’s be realistic, where might the crap hit the fan); and finally,

3) “Where is our backdoor if the worst that could happen, happens?”

Unfortunately, winning the debate, arguing well, finding the slightest little flaw in the ideas of others is often the behavior that seems to be held in great esteem within our firms. And allowing that behavior rarely builds trust or inspires innovation. So to shape a culture that embraces change, I believe starts with the firm leader making it socially unacceptable to ever offer an immediate opinion on whether any new idea will work.

In fact, in a number of the practice groups that I have worked with, they have, with my encouragement, adopted a group protocol (a behavioral guideline for self-governing their collective behavior) that states: “we all agree that in our group, we will LOVE every new idea… for five minutes!”

Finally, I think that one of the toughest jobs that the firm leadership has is to maintain momentum, enthusiasm and demonstrate tenacity. Here are a few very specific actions that I’ve discovered work within firms: 

1.  Don’t launch and leave – stay laser-focused on executing a few initiatives at a time

2.  Ensure that the change is a regular agenda item on management meetings 

3.  Conduct regular meetings of practice leaders – raise issues, cross-fertilize, explore successes, collaborate

4.  Look for some “symbolic” way or act to demonstrate seriousness

5.  Set up a project management center with someone who is knowledgeable about and focused on the human side of the change to:

– Match those struggling with those who have successfully mastered the implementation

– Respond to criticism, make adjustments, remove obstacles, and push forward

6.  Establish an intranet site for ideas, tools, templates, training modules, and other shared assets

7.  Provide generous amount of coaching, guidance and support

8.  Market internally any and every visible sign of improvement

9.  Embed the new change into all existing: firm systems, procedures, protocols, training, relationships, etc.

10.  Use a single metric that best expresses progress for the entire endeavor with relentless campaign communicating progress  

11. Remind everyone how much has already been accomplished

12.  Conduct post-mortem: working well, not working, needs adjustment   

(e.g.: a self-administered questionnaire)

Written by:

Ark Group

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For non-EU/Swiss residents, if you would like to know what personal information we have about you, you can send an e-mail to We will be in contact with you (by mail or otherwise) to verify your identity and provide you the information you request. We will respond within 30 days to your request for access to your personal information. In some cases, we may not be able to remove your personal information, in which case we will let you know if we are unable to do so and why. If you would like to correct or update your personal information, you can manage your profile and subscriptions through our Privacy Center under the "My Account" dashboard. If you would like to delete your account or remove your information from our Website and Services, send an e-mail to

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Privacy Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our Privacy Policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use our Website and Services following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, the practices of this site, your dealings with our Website or Services, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

JD Supra Cookie Guide

As with many websites, JD Supra's website (located at (our "Website") and our services (such as our email article digests)(our "Services") use a standard technology called a "cookie" and other similar technologies (such as, pixels and web beacons), which are small data files that are transferred to your computer when you use our Website and Services. These technologies automatically identify your browser whenever you interact with our Website and Services.

How We Use Cookies and Other Tracking Technologies

We use cookies and other tracking technologies to:

  1. Improve the user experience on our Website and Services;
  2. Store the authorization token that users receive when they login to the private areas of our Website. This token is specific to a user's login session and requires a valid username and password to obtain. It is required to access the user's profile information, subscriptions, and analytics;
  3. Track anonymous site usage; and
  4. Permit connectivity with social media networks to permit content sharing.

There are different types of cookies and other technologies used our Website, notably:

  • "Session cookies" - These cookies only last as long as your online session, and disappear from your computer or device when you close your browser (like Internet Explorer, Google Chrome or Safari).
  • "Persistent cookies" - These cookies stay on your computer or device after your browser has been closed and last for a time specified in the cookie. We use persistent cookies when we need to know who you are for more than one browsing session. For example, we use them to remember your preferences for the next time you visit.
  • "Web Beacons/Pixels" - Some of our web pages and emails may also contain small electronic images known as web beacons, clear GIFs or single-pixel GIFs. These images are placed on a web page or email and typically work in conjunction with cookies to collect data. We use these images to identify our users and user behavior, such as counting the number of users who have visited a web page or acted upon one of our email digests.

JD Supra Cookies. We place our own cookies on your computer to track certain information about you while you are using our Website and Services. For example, we place a session cookie on your computer each time you visit our Website. We use these cookies to allow you to log-in to your subscriber account. In addition, through these cookies we are able to collect information about how you use the Website, including what browser you may be using, your IP address, and the URL address you came from upon visiting our Website and the URL you next visit (even if those URLs are not on our Website). We also utilize email web beacons to monitor whether our emails are being delivered and read. We also use these tools to help deliver reader analytics to our authors to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

Analytics/Performance Cookies. JD Supra also uses the following analytic tools to help us analyze the performance of our Website and Services as well as how visitors use our Website and Services:

  • HubSpot - For more information about HubSpot cookies, please visit
  • New Relic - For more information on New Relic cookies, please visit
  • Google Analytics - For more information on Google Analytics cookies, visit To opt-out of being tracked by Google Analytics across all websites visit This will allow you to download and install a Google Analytics cookie-free web browser.

Facebook, Twitter and other Social Network Cookies. Our content pages allow you to share content appearing on our Website and Services to your social media accounts through the "Like," "Tweet," or similar buttons displayed on such pages. To accomplish this Service, we embed code that such third party social networks provide and that we do not control. These buttons know that you are logged in to your social network account and therefore such social networks could also know that you are viewing the JD Supra Website.

Controlling and Deleting Cookies

If you would like to change how a browser uses cookies, including blocking or deleting cookies from the JD Supra Website and Services you can do so by changing the settings in your web browser. To control cookies, most browsers allow you to either accept or reject all cookies, only accept certain types of cookies, or prompt you every time a site wishes to save a cookie. It's also easy to delete cookies that are already saved on your device by a browser.

The processes for controlling and deleting cookies vary depending on which browser you use. To find out how to do so with a particular browser, you can use your browser's "Help" function or alternatively, you can visit which explains, step-by-step, how to control and delete cookies in most browsers.

Updates to This Policy

We may update this cookie policy and our Privacy Policy from time-to-time, particularly as technology changes. You can always check this page for the latest version. We may also notify you of changes to our privacy policy by email.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about how we use cookies and other tracking technologies, please contact us at:

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This website uses cookies to improve user experience, track anonymous site usage, store authorization tokens and permit sharing on social media networks. By continuing to browse this website you accept the use of cookies. Click here to read more about how we use cookies.