Monday, July 16, 2007

Instituting Change At Law Firms

Change management has been a popular topic at knowledge management conferences. Nina Platt's excellent presentation on managing change at the October 2006 Ark Conference in Chicago stood out for me. She discussed organizational theory on change, including Everett Rodgers' clustering people into five categories;

•2.5% inventors
•13.5% early adopters
•34% early majority adopters
•34% late majority adopters
•16% laggards

Her main point was that effective change has usually been accomplished by focusing on the 15% of people who are "inventor" or "early adopter"-level change embracers, not on the late majority or the laggards (or even the early majority).

While it was interesting and helpful, I don't recall Nina's talk specifically addressing change in the context of large law firm culture. Despite the popular image of law as a quagmire of dusty and unchanging rules [FN1], lawyers are in fact trained and accustomed to dealing with change. The case method still used in law schools to inculcate young lawyers with the culture of the law necessarily shows them that the law is subject to change. That is because it is plain that the common law has evolved to account for unexpected circumstances, such as the development of railroads and the printed circuit board.

Even the everyday system of authority and validation of cases underscores the changing nature of the law. When lawyers enter practice, it is drilled into them that they must verify the validity of the cases in any brief or research memo they submit to their partner (not to mention the court), among other reasons in order to avoid the embarrasment of having the opposing counsel snidely point out in court that "counsel's argument is based on bad [that is, outdated] law."

That is not to say that lawyers in practice embrace change for the sake of change. To the contrary, I think that the tremendous time pressures on lawyers to bill, win business, and otherwise focus on what they have to do day-to-day makes it very difficult for them to pay attention to or even to gracefully accept significant changes in their working environment.

  • The trick is to quickly make it apparent that the change is in the lawyer's best interest, and ideally, will even save her time.
  • Selling change through a story, in particular, a story about a problem like one that the lawyer actually faces, will bring the need for change home.
  • And, if you are instituting a new IT-based tool, find those lawyers who have professional or personal expertese and invite them in early--lawyers are not shy about providing honest feedback about the utility of software or other tools, and if they help you vet it, they will be some of the early leaders in adoption of the new technology.
And presenting the "how-to" in a way that appeals to a variety of learning styles will also increase the odds of success. I think that most lawyers are by necessity extremely good at learning solely through the printed word, and may not need the visual and oral component as much as a garden-variety business audience. At the same time, adding some visual pizazz can be much appreciated, especially by Generation Y.

FN1: "Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth." Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 1.

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