Can lawyers really change?

Stephen Revell is a member of the MD Communications Advisory board, until this year he was a lawyer at Freshfields for 41 years and currently a global consultant having recently launched Making Change Happen, a law firm management consultancy to help law firms bring about change.

On a tech webinar held by MD Communications earlier this year, the theme of change came up again and again. It made me reflect on the need for lawyers and law firms (and support staff) to change and adapt, especially in this new normal, with so many of us working from home.

What Covid has proven is that lawyers can change – and can change quickly – when forced or required to do so. We have all sorted out working from home and mostly have been able to do so without issues. We have all learned to embrace, for many of us, new technologies such as Zoom and Teams (not a big step!). The situation has also highlighted that one of the challenges of working from home is good internet access. How can that be fixed when lawyers live in different places and situations? There is much that still needs to be done if we are to accommodate long-term home working, including better ways to supervise, train and mentor our people, especially for our younger lawyers.

Technology and change

For older lawyers such as me, we have also seen technology-driven change happen reasonably seamlessly in the past. I remember the pre-email, even pre-fax, world where physical correspondence and telexes were the order of the day. Change took place quickly – we embraced fax machines, even the original quirky ones that faded almost instantly. Email took over as the main communication method – who now doesn’t communicate with clients and each other primarily using email? So lawyers can and do change.

Exploring resistance to change

But change that we decide upon, rather than which is forced upon us, is much harder. Lawyers perhaps seem resistant to change that is for our own benefit, both in an absolute sense and also compared to other professional service providers. Many clients comment on this, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with annoyance.

From my many years as a lawyer at Freshfields I learned that lawyers like to use consultants to progress change.  Now as I venture into the consulting world myself, I am struck by how many consultants tell stories of law firms spending significant sums on projects for change, build consensus around that change and then… nothing happens until, usually, a different consultant is appointed three years later to provide the same advice, because the problem has not gone away.

Why aren’t we better at making change happen? 

I think it is because we expect it to happen, rather than have to make it happen, which is what is needed. This can be done by strong management once consensus is built but, strangely, even good managers struggle and talk about “herding cats”. As a group, we need to embrace change proactively. There are circumstances where we need to treat change as a “client”.

For example, create an internal team, possibly with an external catalyst, to deliver change. Then give the project a client matter number so people can record their time bringing about the change. Managers should find ways to incentivise and reward behaviour spent working towards this. Above all, we need to try to find ways of measuring change and changed behaviours. Although I am not a fan, the adage “if you can’t measure it, it won’t happen” has a lot of truth in it.

And let’s not forget our support staff – often close to or exceeding 50% of our people. They need to change as well – especially if we are to see prolonged WFH. We need to rethink support and how it’s delivered – without just switching administrative tasks to our lawyers.

Lawyers can change – they just need to be better at making change happen.

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