There is a graphic that folks frequently re-post on LinkedIn and elsewhere, about what it takes to actually implement change in an organization—assuming it wants to change. In the category of organizations, I am including law firms.
And, yes, law firms have some particular problems when it comes to change management.
My career of doing marketing and public relations for lawyers and law firms is also peppered with doing major change management at some of North America’s biggest corporations including Canadian National Railway and Nortel, the latter about a decade before its implosion. I was also at KMPG during the re-regulation of the accounting industry of Sarbanes-Oxley after the meltdown of both accounting firm Arthur Anderson and their client Enron. And, I was the second director of marketing of McCarthy Tetrault, Canada’s largest national law firm in the mid-1990s, tasked with all kinds of change.
The graphic looks like this and is by Anthony Ambrose, published in his 1987 landmark book, Managing Complex Change:
The critical elements to make change happen are: vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan. There are also versions of this graphic that include a sixth key element: assessment, which is critical as well. Otherwise, if you don’t measure, how do you know you’re making progress?
I have seen these 6 critical elements in action (including assessment)—and they really work. It’s not a magic formula, it’s just the right formula. Missing a link in the chain? The graphic tells you what the result will be.
The graphic is elegant in its simplicity in identifying the bottlenecks to change. And explains why some organizations—including law firms—successfully change and why others suffer false starts for years. The biggest danger of repeated false starts is people get very cynical. “Here we go again!” These are the people who tend to keep a low profile until the hoopla goes away again.
The best example of change that had all the necessary elements was when I was director of employee communication at Canadian National Railway in Montreal (1995 to 1998). We had a vision identified by CEO Paul Tellier to compete favourably against our peer group railways in the US, including bringing down the operating ratio, a key measure of productivity for railways. There was an entire suite of courses made available to operations employees to improve their skills, including business, management, and communication skills. There were incentives to change employees’ behaviours. There were adequate resources and an action plan. And there was assessment, both of the overall plan and how individuals were performing against it.
A quick aside here: Yes, corporations are comprised of employees, who for the most part do what they are told. Law firms have equity-holding partners and professional staff. But both types of organizations have leaders. With change management, change starts at the top. Great leadership is mandatory.
Years earlier, over at Nortel, the organization spent what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time on “visioning.” Every department had a Vision or a Mission Statement. But that was not before hordes of consultants worked for months on end to create these Vision statements. And then the walls of every boardroom and meeting room were plastered with them. Meh!
It was one of the most surreal experiences of my professional career to see people fighting flat-out for this word, that word or the other word which should be in the Vision or Mission Statement. Or, whether it should be 17 words, 26 words, or 39 words. Resist the tendency to cram too many ideas into one sentence; it’s not a legal clause.
Vision and Mission Statements should be short
Here’s what I’ve learned: first, Vision and Mission Statements should be as short as possible, so that people can remember them. If no one can remember them, you have failed. The language should be simple and impactful. And, they don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be right enough. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on them is a waste.
Second, the more time and energy an organization spends on announcing and promoting its Vision or Mission Statement, the more cynical people get. Yes, you need to communicate it, but the other components of change management are actually more critical. It’s best to just get on with change.
The real work of change management is actually in skills, incentives, resources, an action plan, and assessment.
Bottlenecks for change in law firms
The skills area can be a problem for lawyers and law firms because lawyers spend all day giving other people advice. This has the effect of making some lawyers feel invincible. The smartest lawyers I have worked with over two decades are the ones open to learning new things. They may be the “smartest people in the room,” but they don’t take every opportunity to tell you that.
Other than end-of-year distributions to partners, many law firms have no incentives. What about investigating other “carrots” for associates as well as professional and administrative staff?
And the flip-side of incentives is: consequences. Most law firms I know don’t do a good job of this. I have heard stories of lawyers stealing another lawyer’s client—with no repercussions. If there is no punishment for transgressions, that’s telling everyone that it’s basically condoned.
Apply the right resources to change management; or the chant becomes “We have nothing to work with!” Resources in a law firm can be an issue; yes, there are resources and the same projects and initiatives tend to get funded every year. Smart law firms look at the ROI on their change management investment. If it’s not working, change it.
Action plans for change management are important, too. What’s even more important is implementing the plan and sticking to the timeline. And not allowing other stuff to get in the way. Consistently work on your action plan, and you get momentum, followed by critical mass.
The assessment part in law firms can be a famously awkward. Lawyers generally dislike giving evaluations to other lawyers and being evaluated themselves. It’s not part of lawyers’ DNA. It puts a kink in the legal fraternity—and not in a good way. I have heard stories that when it is time to get rid of problematic partners (whether they cause too much internal friction, or more likely, they are not making their billable hours and covering their overhead), lawyers dislike doing it so much that they pay consultants tens of thousands of dollars to come and do it—from New York City.
The assessment part is difficult and lawyers should treat themselves as their own clients, by applying the same rigorous thinking to their own law firms. Easy to say and tough to do.
Words and actions must be consistent
The other biggie in change management is what’s called “walking the talk.” If there is no consistency between what is said and what actually happens, people believe the actions and not the words. At the end of the day, what has the firm done, and never mind what the firm said. This is a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many law firms get caught in this trap. The say-do consistency is a constant struggle in all organizations, not just law firms, that want to affect change. It’s not easy. There will be glitches no matter what.
And let me say this: if an organization has had a number of false starts in change management, people are just waiting for those “gotcha!” moments. “Glitch watch” becomes a kind of firm sport.
Underpinning all this is people’s emotional reaction to change. People hate change. Everyone wants the other guy to change first. “What will I lose because of change?” is a big question for many. Most organizations including law firms, don’t do a good job of this because we tend to keep our emotions in close check at the workplace. But people still have emotions. Smart law firms help people deal with emotions; chatter at the water cooler is just the beginning. And it’s actually a good thing.