Managing Legal Change Initiatives: Strategic approaches to introducing change

Posted on May 26, 2019


The following piece was authored by Patrick J. McKenna for Ark Group’s publication Managing Legal Change Initiatives. 

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 among 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?’

QUESTION:  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

  1. Establish an intranet site for ideas, tools, templates, training modules, and other shared assets
  2.  Provide generous amount of coaching, guidance and support
  3. Market internally any and every visible sign of improvement
  4. Embed the new change into all existing: firm systems, procedures, protocols, training, relationships, etc.
  5. Use a single metric that best expresses progress for the entire endeavor with relentless campaign communicating progress
  6. Remind everyone how much has already been accomplished
  7. Conduct post-mortem: working well, not working, needs adjustment