Better business results can only be achieved by a change in process or behaviour, so change management is mandatory in law firms. Yet ironically, partners are the ones who most often stand in the way of change.
Law firms hire me to help create a strategic plan for their future. They also hire me to help them implement on that plan. But engaging me is only the first step. In order for firms to truly improve, they must have the courage and discipline to follow completely through with their plan. And that’s very difficult for some of them to do.
When a firm embarks on any kind of plan – let alone a strategic plan – it’s because the partners have declared that they are unhappy with the status quo. They know that in order to have different results, they need different actions. So new goals are created, and a plan is developed to guide the firm through all of the changes needed in order to reach those goals.
The early days of implementation aren’t too bad as some things are relatively easy to change. Adjust the firm’s policies and procedures? Usually no problem. Make changes to our lawyers and staff? Again, logical changes are understood and there is little resistance. Make changes to practice areas? Provided it makes sense, full steam ahead. Changes to marketing strategies and practices? A little more resistance here but for the most part, onward and upward.
And this is when things might start to stall. (I reference why below). This can stop or delay progress, but even worse is that a plan might be partially implemented, so stalls or backslides operate counter to the agreed upon strategy. This causes everyone to question the plan, the firm’s commitment to the plan, or both. Then before you know it, you’re back to previous behaviors, the same inadequate results, and a suspicion about the effectiveness of planning generally, which weakens resolve to ever do it again.
Why do things stall? Progress generally slows when behaviour change is required at the partnership level. Having dealt with law firm change management for almost thirty years, I suggest that eight times out of ten, the issue will be lack of partner compliance in one of the following four ways:
- A partner or partners will feel like they’ve supported and made a number of changes already. They are tired of having to act and think differently. They’ve filled their quota for change for the year. They resist any further change.
- A partner will have approved changes to date because it wasn’t too close to home. But once change starts to affect them more directly, they may lose willingness to proceed.
- A partner will be silent during the planning and approval stage, but then voice a dissenting opinion during implementation, and refuse to comply.
- A non-compliant partner will argue that the implementation looks entirely different than what was described in the approval process. They will demand a delay so that the process can be re- examined, or to consider alternatives to the process already underway.
On occasion a strong resistance might come from an associate or associate counsel. For various reasons the partners will not police this individual. This actually enables the non-conformer’s behaviour and encourages others with in the firm to revolt as well.
And finally, there’s always the chance that the plan was poorly formed, that the goals are actually unachievable, or that life has changed in some way since the goals and plan where set, and the goals and plan need adjustment.
Firms deal with these issues differently. Some try to work around the non-complying partner. This is not always possible, and certainly sends mixed signals to everyone else in the firm. Many firms down-tools as they attempt to get the partner on-side. But if enough momentum is lost from these efforts, the firm may never regain its footing, and only a lesser version of the plan may be implemented. Some firms allow dissenters to convince them that this is what you get from trying to change the firm, and partnerships give up trying to operate differently.
Yet if a firm is unhappy with past results and wants to improve, change is mandatory. Accepting defeat is a slide backwards. And enabling bad behaviour rewards it. It encourages the bad behaviour to continue, and seeks to draft new dissenters to act out within the firm. Never underestimate the impact of bad partner behaviour. A friend has living proof in their firm, where a junior in a department is starting to exhibit the same negative characteristics of a senior partner in that department because the firm is demonstrating through their action (or lack thereof) that that’s the kind of behavior it supports.
Firms going through any change management – whether it’s a revised support structure, a new billing procedure or a strategic plan – must aim for 100% completion if they wish to be successful. This is true for all successful accomplishments – it’s why sports experts’ consistently talk about the importance of follow-through. Only then do you know you’ve successfully completed your ideal pathway.
How do you ensure your firm completes that last 20%?
- Ensure the goal-setting process for the project is sound, and that all are on-board. Have the lawyers verbally declare this to the group in a meeting if possible.
- Ensure the action plan for accomplishing those goals is logical and doable. Again, obtain verbal approval from all concerned in a public forum (group meeting) if possible.
- Establish a partner responsible for the project. Let the firm know this partner is responsible for successful completion of this plan and reports directly to the managing partner/executive to ensure on-time completion.
- Divide actions into logical segments and attach corresponding reporting periods. This creates a forum for early identification and handling of any potential stalls before they take the plan down.
- Commence all communications about a particular step by re-enforcing where it sits within the approved plan, to make it clear the actions have already been approved and are expected. (“Further to the firm’s approved media strategy, the next step is to train our practice leaders on media 101. Please identify your availability to take this training in one of the three optional dates provided”).
- At the first sign of hesitancy, speak with the individual directly to learn more about the hold-up. If the issue cannot be resolved at that level, engage the partner responsible for the project to obtain compliance from whoever is stalling. If needed, move the issue up the food chain to the managing partner.
- Change management is a requirement in law firms. We need a tight and logical process for developing it, and the courage and discipline to fully implement it. Earlier this year at a speaking engagement before Administrators for smaller law firms, I was asked how to deal with lawyers who were non-compliant with an approved firm plan and my response was that under no circumstances should that lawyer be allowed to win. Non-compliance allows a single partner to hijack the firm’s business strategy, and sets a dangerous example for all other members of the firm. As parents, we understand this – giving in to your toddler makes it twice as hard to teach them next time. Lawyers aren’t kids, but they are human…particularly intelligent, assertive, tenacious humans. And partners are humans with power. We need to train them how to be good partners in change management. After all, firm culture is usually set by the lowest common denominator, not the highest.