Business & Financial Management

A Case for Change: How to Effectively Lead Organizational Change in Law Firms

By Matthew Coatney posted 02-06-2015 11:26


This is a co-post with Steven Smith, Business Relationship Manager at WilmerHale

Getting anyone to accept and embrace change can be a challenge. Add the skeptical and introverted nature of many lawyers and you have the makings of a Greek tragedy on your hands. So why do we continually throw good money after bad implementing technologies that very few use? Or perhaps a better question: what can we do about it?

Enter Organizational Change Management, or OCM. Originally developed in the 1980s and popularized over the last few decades, OCM is a guiding set of principles and framework for introducing change in an organization and decreasing the chance of failure. Put another way, it’s a vital but often overlooked or under-resourced component to any major project. Use it, and you have a chance of succeeding. Otherwise, you are rolling the dice – and the house usually wins.

This article discusses how to apply change management practices in the unique environment of a law firm. If you are interested in learning more about change management, we recommend starting with John Kotter’s book, Leading Change. It provides an excellent overview of OCM and a framework for making change stick.

Build a Sense of Urgency

Key Concept: Know thy firm

Understand the organizational structure (centralized control vs. decentralized fiefdoms), business levers and influencers, and which practices and offices are hungry for work.

OCM experts agree that one of the first things you must do is build a sense of urgency. People need to feel compelled to change, otherwise they will keep doing the status quo. After all, why change when everything is working just fine, thank you very much? You may have heard the term “burning platform”, which paints a very visceral picture (you either jump or go up in flames). In essence, you need to identify a compelling reason to adopt a new technology or realign an organization that gets people’s attention.

This can be difficult in law firms because, traditionally, we have been relatively well insulated from the socioeconomic storms that have rocked other institutions. I can see partners’ point of view when they say, “why change when our profits and salaries keep going up 5% a year?” Hard to argue with that logic.

Even with current competitive pressures, things are still by and large good for many firms. So you will need to dig deeper to uncover pain points and opportunities underneath the surface. Is there a particular matter team facing a real client crisis because they cannot share documents quickly enough? Or a practice or office that is hungry for more business but is having a hard time differentiating themselves from the competition? These are opportunities to engage an eager audience and partner with them to champion a sense of urgency within their practice and to senior management .

Identify and Gain Buy-In from Key Constituents

Key Concept: What’s in it for me?

Identify the key members of the firm that must buy in to the change, and lead with what drives them or keeps them up at night. There is no one size fits all approach – every person must be handled differently.

Once you have agreement on what the problem is, you need to paint a compelling picture for what will be different and better as a result of the change. In short, you need people to buy in to your vision of a better future. Too often, we resort to a list of features or simply point to marketing literature, but these attempts fall woefully short of garnering the deep support we need to make change stick.

A better approach is to frame everything in the context of “What’s in it for me?”, giving fuel to motivations or easing fears for each individual or stakeholder group. A tried and true tool to accomplish this is a stakeholder analysis. Here you list all of the relevant stakeholders, benefits, potential objections, and communication preferences. Just the act of writing this down will often surface key secondary stakeholders you may have otherwise forgotten. It also helps to articulate benefits from their point of view and using language that resonates with them – not your vantage point.

Once you understand your stakeholder groups, you develop short, targeted messaging for each: think a 30-second “elevator pitch” with additional details tailored to their needs. From there, you identify the key influencers in each stakeholder group, develop a communications plan, and execute that plan by reaching out to the various groups to raise initial awareness and garner early buy-in.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “This sounds like a lot of work.” And you would be right. There are no shortcuts, no brilliant single email you can craft that accomplishes this in one fell swoop. The less glorious aspect of change management, particularly in law firms, is it requires significant effort to do right. But the payoff, in terms of a successfully adopted new technology, is worth the investment.

Set your Project Up for Success with Quick Wins

Key Concept: Lawyers are skeptical – show AND tell

Identify and act on opportunities for quick wins during a project to build and sustain momentum.

Quick wins are the fuel that keeps a change management engine running. Too often, project teams will lock themselves away, toil for months or even years perfecting a solution, and expect to unveil the change to great fanfare and immediate success. While this may work for Apple and a public hungry for their products, it is not a strategy to affect real change in an organization, especially a law firm.

Lawyers are more skeptical than the general public. No, that is not a stereotype: organizational psychologists have conducted scientific studies that demonstrate this. What this means for change management in a law firm is that the bar is set very high for any change. It must be better than what they have now, cannot rely on marketing fluff, and in most cases must be proven through actual experience and not just talked about.

The antidote is a series of well-timed and well-planned quick wins along the change journey. Not only do they help build and sustain momentum within the firm, they also help bolster the project team’s motivation and ward off potential burnout.

You likely are doing some of this already today. Proofs of concept, early adopters, pilots: these are all opportunities to claim victory and capitalize on that success. To get the most out of these activities, though, you will need to plan a regular series of quick wins (every few months for a typical project) and build in time for reflecting on and communicating these wins to stakeholders and, where appropriate, the firm at large. To boost the effectiveness of these communications, find a lawyer or staff member to talk about positive benefits or  tell a story in their own words.  Real life examples told by a respected colleague have incredible impact and can suddenly  become the “ face” of change - often having the same impact as a social media post gone viral.

Make the Change Stick

Key Concept: People look for consistency

Ensure that firm leadership messaging, other communications, rewards/incentives  and metrics are all consistent with the new direction. Ensure people have the tools and information they need to succeed.

While change can be derailed at any stage in its lifecycle, the point at which it is introduced is perhaps the most precarious. Expectations and anxieties are at their highest, people are receptive to change, and those who prefer to keep the status quo are looking for any excuse to reject the change like a body rejecting an organ.

In our experience, we have found that two elements are critical to success: consistency and access.

Too often, teams undermine their efforts by not going far enough to align leadership, messaging, reward systems, and other aspects of the organization with the proposed change. The instant someone sees management reverting to old behavior under pressure (say, using an old reporting system instead of embracing the firm’s new dashboard), the implicit message to staff is to keep the status quo.

To be successful, you will need to align all of your firm’s resources to this new way of thinking. Management buy-in and messaging needs to be well defined and crisp, policy documents and intranet sites must be updated, and rewards or penalties must be adjusted if appropriate.

Once you have consistency, you need to ensure that people have ready access to the tools and information necessary to do their jobs, both during and after the introduction of change. This comes in the form of initial training, on-demand resources, and continuing education. But simply training to functions and features is usually insufficient for people to internalize the change. You will need to tailor the content back to the specific stakeholders and their key benefits (what’s in it for them).

In a law firm, this can be especially tricky since getting lawyers into a classroom setting is very difficult unless you can offer CLE credit or otherwise entice them. You can counteract this trend through more customized, hands-on sessions that are brief and targeted to a particular need. And, don’t overlook the critical role secretaries still play in many lawyers’ lives. If they buy in to the change, they can help get on the lawyer’s calendar or even show them how to do something new.

Often we see law firms introduce new technology with a quick roadshow of training sessions then assume their work is done. This is simply not true. Most of what people retain from learning must be experienced in their day-to-day work for it to stick. You can use on-demand resources like quick reference guides and interactive websites, quick how-to emails, and formal continuing education to continue reinforcing and internalizing change across the organization.


While none of this is easy, the time spent learning and applying these concepts can make the difference between a successful change and an expensive flop. Like any change, we recommend you take manageable steps to introduce these concepts in your organization and achieve your own quick wins. We have found that even modest steps in the right direction can pay significant dividends.