Teaming and Collaboration: The Reality Behind Creating Real Change in Law Firms

JD Supra Perspectives

Managing Real Collaboration and Change: An Overview

Countless articles, social media posts and blogs have been written lately about how the practice of law is changing. One thing that is certain though, change is hard and requires long term commitment. Leaning on research-proven methods to successfully launch change can be the difference between, “We talked about it,” versus, “We did it!” 

Clients are more than asking for outside law firms to develop a deeper understanding of their needs. Partners that embrace true collaboration find opportunities not only to enhance relationships, but also to explore how they can embrace the business goals of the company. 

The primary goal must focus on how to make legal engagements a win for the client...

These changes have outside lawyers digging deeper with those in the legal department, whether they are attorneys or legal operations professionals. The primary goal must focus on how to make legal engagements a win for the client. Savvy partners will probe more deeply and ask what would be a coveted solution for the legal department’s clients – those responsible for running the company. This is the nugget driving innovation and change.

For teaming and collaboration to be successful, changes must happen within the law firm first.

Partners must become trained and skilled, albeit comfortable, exploring issues more deeply to create win-win solutions. We already know legal departments want better efficiency and predictability in how their legal matters are managed. The next change they are seeking is to have their outside lawyers help then meet the business goals they are facing.

Just discussing change has never been an effective strategy for making change. For decades law firms have looked in the rear view mirror and clung to the history of how things were done. These days, however, more and more firms are accepting that the practice of law has changed and embracing the fact that change is all client driven now.

It is no secret that a number of firm leaders are near retirement or at least at the point where some succession planning must occur within their firms. And more than a few partners are hoping they actually will retire before their firms “have to” turn up-side-down and implement the real changes sweeping the marketplace.

Just discussing change has never been an effective strategy for making change...

It may be too late for many law firms to be early adopters of deeper collaboration and change. But firms do not have to be laggards either.

When a major change comes to play in any organization certain responses typically occur. Using the researched-based teachings from the Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM), from the University of Texas, the remainder of this article will address the needs, concerns and levels of use that happen during the implementation of a new innovation in a law firm. And in this case, the innovation is based on creating win-win situations for clients and their clients, the business side.

Why are there frequently problems with the actual implementation and use of new innovations?

The reasons generally have little to do with the merit of the program. Rather, the resistance to change, or keeping the status quo, has to do with concern over actually using the new innovation. Questions as to how individuals will be evaluated on their effective use of the innovation, and when significant competency of the change is expected are often the real culprits of resistance.

Oftentimes the firm will provide training, practice and a break‑in period for the innovation to be learned. Why then don't these factors eliminate the struggle in accomplishing the innovation?

Concepts such as firm culture, history, inertia and levels of concern over the new change and varying levels of effective use may all come to play as to why the innovation is producing more negative feelings than positive outcomes.

In many instances, a firm may try to rush through this process without the assistance of training and research. An innovation might seem urgent and justified to a firm committee and it is pushed into being. This can dramatically raise the level of concern of participants. When a firm steps back and explores individual concerns, the probability of a shortened and successful implementation greatly increases.

How the CBAM Model Creates Successful Change

In the musical The Music Man, actor Robert Preston plays the part of the swindling salesman selling band instruments in a small town around the turn of the century. Preston tells the parents that if their sons use the Think Method, simply thinking about a piece of music, they can play it.

Ah, if change were only so easy.

A better strategy might be to use a successful research-based change model such as the CBAM Model, which is an acronym for the Concerns Based Adoption Model. It is a change process model copyrighted at the Research & Development Center, The University of Texas at Austin. 

In order to create a positive transition firm-wide implementation plans should begin early in the process. Clearly stated expectations and a safe learning environment will greatly enhance the probability of success. Deal with cultural issues such as:

  • What are the front‑end concerns of each individual that the innovation effects?
  • How might this affect each individual?
  • What is expected from each person and over what time frame?
  • Does this process negate or put into question some basic givens about the firm culture?

Perhaps the firm might schedule meetings to deal with individual concerns. Discuss the training format from orientation to mechanical use to routine use to full integration. Allow participants to verbalize anticipated stumbling blocks and concerns.

The training and implementation process might need to be reexamined and refocused several times during this process. This will effectively decrease the level of concern and increase the effective level of use of all participants.

The change process in any organization, according to the CBAM research, is fairly constant. By giving more meaningful planning time to this process, we can expect to greatly:

  • Reduce training and implementation time.
  • Reduce the level of concern of all participants regarding the innovation.
  • Increase effective levels of use.
  • Create comradery, sense of pride and accomplishment through the successful implementation of the innovation.


As more and more law firms delve into changes designed to increase relationships with clients and potential clients, many are discovering they share concerns in implementing real and lasting change.

These commonalities can grind even the most innovative idea to a pulp if pro‑active planning is not adequate. Those who are involved in the delivery of changes in a law firm continue to discover that repairing the damage of a poorly planned innovation is more costly and time consuming than a carefully planned pro‑active approach.

The CBAM research attempts to understand (1) how people change in both their feelings about their use of new programs, and (2) what processes and characteristics of individuals and settings facilitate or inhibit the change process.

The Model points out that "change is a process" by describing four phases of this process. Within every phase, there are characteristics of an effective innovation change program.

CBAM assumes that individuals grow in both their feelings toward and their use of new programs and that, in order to enhance that growth, one must tailor assistance to specific developmental needs.

Individuals involved in this process usually move through three global stages in their concerns about the new approach. 1) Self-concerns manifest during introductory phases. (How will this affect me?) 2) Initial use is characterized by concerns about management of the program (Will I ever get it all organized?), and 3) Only when these prior concerns are resolved do concerns about impact on learners take over (Are they learning what they need?). 

Research on the CBAM has identified six Stages of Concern about any innovation that reflect this general trend.

Stages of Concern

Stage 0 . . . . . . . . . . Awareness

Stage 1 . . . . . . .. Informational

Stage 2 . . . . . . . . . . . .Personal

Stage 3 . . . . .  . . .Management

Stage 4 . . . . . . . . Consequence

Stage 5 . . . . . . ..Collaboration

Stage 6 . . . . . . . . . Refocusing

As individuals become more familiar and comfortable with an innovation, they became more skilled and coordinated in its use, and more sensitive to its actual impact on the firm.

The Levels of Use of the innovation are the second aspect of the change process which describes individuals’ actual use of the innovation.

Levels of Use

LEVEL 0 . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. NON-USE

LEVEL 1 . . . . . . . . . . ORIENTATION

LEVEL 2 . . . . . . . . . . PREPARATION

LEVEL 3 . . . . . . . MECHANICAL USE

LEVEL 4a . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ROUTINE

LEVEL 4b . . . . . . . . . .. REFINEMENT

LEVEL 5 . . . . . . . . . .. INTEGRATION

LEVEL 6 . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. RENEWAL

Using the concepts from the Level of Concern and the Level of Use we can view the change process in four phases:

  1. Orientation and Preparation
  2. Implementation
  3. Maintenance
  4. Refinement


Law firm innovations can be successful if development, training and support activities are designed according to the developmental needs of the participants.

Initial activities should be directed at informational and personal concerns. Hands‑on skill development training should occur next, followed by specific and timely problem solving.

Finally, self‑analytical and learner‑oriented application activities should be recognized and held in high regard. The continuous support of participants, monitoring of progress and needs, and firm‑wide administrative support all greatly increase the likelihood of a truly successful innovation. Leaving out any one of these steps greatly reduces the chance for a successful implementation of the innovation.


[Merry Neitlich, Managing Partner of EM Consulting, is located in Irvine, California. We assist law firms with strategic business development, branding, websites, legal operations, and client enhancement programs. Merry can be reached at 949.260.0936 or]

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