What if our Post-COVID Barriers to Change are...People?

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International Lawyers Network

We’re slowly, slowly easing back into a post-COVID world (maybe? Delta variants, anyone?) and with that brings a lot of stress and a lot of change. Potentially.

As we’ve discussed over the past couple of weeks, there may be some temptation to slip back into “the way we’ve always done things,” and while that may feel comfortable and familiar, it’s not a good enough reason to do it. And if you are thinking that you can get away with doing it at your law firm, take heed – recent studies and articles are saying, not so fast:

American workers are quitting their jobs more than any other time in the past two decades.” — Jack Kelly, for Forbes

Insurance and financial services giant Prudential conducted a study that found ‘one in three American workers would not want to work for an employer that required them to be onsite full time.’ The survey also indicated, ‘A quarter of workers plan on looking for a new job when the threat of the pandemic decreases, signaling a looming ‘war for talent.’” — Jack Kelly, for Forbes

So be wary – in the war for talent, a war that the legal industry has been engaged in for a long time already, make sure that you aren’t helping the other side to your best warriors.

We’ve spoken before about Mark Beese’s (President of Leadership for Lawyers LLC) three styles for change and how to persuade each of the groups that comprise these styles. Let’s look at these within the context of a post-COVID world, and how we can use this knowledge to work within our own firms and organizations to move them forward.

Three Styles for Change

Considering change was happening at a glacial pace in the legal industry for a while and then suddenly overnight, you can imagine that some of us were thrown into a bit of a tizzy. Review these three styles below and give some thought as to which category you fall into:

  • Conservers: Prefer incremental change. They’re not against change, but they only want to make small changes to the structure and accept the structure as it is. Those in this group are the ones that we’ve mentioned will want to see the results of pilot tests before moving forward, they’ll want to know what other firms are doing, and they’re a bit more forward-thinking than those who refuse change outright, but they still tend to want to stick with the status quo. You can imagine that moving an entire firm to remote working in a short period of time was extremely stressful for them, and this group was most likely the ones who continued to come into the office during quarantine. This will also be the group who is most likely to want things to return to “the way we’ve always done it.”
  • Originators: They challenge the structure, and prefer change that is expansive. They’re the type to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Those who are excited about innovation will fall into this group. Unsurprisingly, this group thrived with the jump to remote working. Even if they were in challenging circumstances at home, they were likely to figure out how to make things work quickly and came up with unique solutions for how to achieve value for the firm.
  • Pragmatists: Like to explore the structure and prefer functional change. They usually end up moderating between the other two groups and are more focused on the results than the structure. This will be our hybrid group (though you may surprise yourselves and fall somewhere to one side or the other, depending on how comfortable you’ve gotten with either way of working, and also what your home situation was like during the pandemic – it will differ person to person). Either way, you’ll find yourself holding back the originators who will want to continue to make big sweeping changes, now that they know the firm is capable of moving to remote working (“what else can we do if that’s possible!?”), while also ensuring that progress still remains.

I’d say I tend to fall in between being a pragmatist and an originator. Not surprisingly, most lawyers will be in the conserver category, which makes pushing for change challenging, but not impossible. An important item to note here is that firms and organizations will want to consider where their clients fall on this scale versus where their lawyers are. If your clients are largely in the pragmatist category, while the majority of your law firm is in the conserver category, that may not be a good fit. I can hear some of you arguing with me on this point already, but consider that if you have clients who are all originators, they’ll be happy to test out alternative service providers, look for firms who are taking risks and making big changes, and fully embrace technology. If that’s really not your firm, they probably won’t stick around.

Connecting with your clients on this is still essential in a post-COVID world, and not just in the beginning too – as we’ve said before, all of us are hungry for human connection. We’re all excited to see each other again and have a meal or even a useless face-to-face meeting. But I do believe that there will be some happy medium for all of us, where we’ll have less travel for short meetings and more zoom calls (more efficiency and value for clients), while ensuring that the face-to-face time that we DO have is maximized and technology-free.

The Art of Persuasion

Understanding which group the person you’re engaged with falls into is key to enacting change. Not only do you need to understand where YOU fall on this scale, but also where each of those that you’re trying to convince fall. Mark points out that social behavior is driven by minimizing threats and maximizing rewards, in these areas:

  • Status: their relative importance to others
  • Certainty: an understanding of what’s next/the future
  • Autonomy: a sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: a sense of safety/acceptance with others
  • Fairness: this can be related to compensation at law firms

As you think about each of these points, consider how each of them has been affected by the pandemic as well, and the impact of that on a person’s behavior. Certainty, autonomy, relatedness have all been hugely impacted by the pandemic for all of us, and will, as a result, have a huge effect on an individual’s behavior. So someone who may previously have been more of an originator when it comes to firm innovation may suddenly be more of a pragmatist or even a conserver. Take your time when introducing innovation and change, even if it’s change that the firm has already been undertaking.

As we would with a client, consider your audience when working to build consensus on a change item (this is why it’s helpful if leaders of the firm are pragmatists, or try to rein in any originator tendencies). You’ll want to choose one item at a time that you’re trying to change, or if you’re changing multiple things, work on those incrementally and with pilot groups. Try to understand your proposal from their point of view, and frame it in a way that highlights the benefits to them. Mark suggests testing the proposal on trusted confidantes, and refining it as necessary. I particularly liked his suggestion for providing evidence for change (lawyers love facts and evidence) and connecting emotionally through storytelling. It can be tempting to want to throw down ideas and implement them, but when you’re addressing potentially large-scale changes, especially in a group that is adverse to change generally, it’s preferable to massage it a little bit. Remember you’re working with individuals, who will each have their own style for change and motivations for persuasion. It’s a daunting task in a world that is moving quickly, but by being sensitive to your audience (your lawyers, professional staff, clients), identifying how they deal with change, and how you can push them along to change, you’ll make much quicker progress than insisting on your own ideas.

In a follow-up post, we’ll talk about some additional practical steps for motivating the members of your firm to change. Yes, it seems like we’re taking a lot of time to focus in on these small details of change and change management within firms, but remember, we’ve all been through some major upheavals over the last 18 months and it’s okay to take our time with adjusting and identifying the way we want things to be for the future. It’s also okay (and lawyers, I know you’re REALLY not going to like this) to test out a way of working or a new idea that fails and to try something else. That’s how we get better – and I even give you permission to blame it on post-COVID growing pains.

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