Change can be intimidating.

Whether you find it exciting or not, even those of us who are the most adept at it can find it daunting and exhausting. In the legal industry, where change is historically slow, when it happens at all, it can be even more overwhelming. We hear an awful lot about it, but it can be challenging to know where to start.

There are companies jumping into the space from other industries, disrupting the status quo and throwing out the old ways of doing things. Clients like them, and they should. They’re more efficient, they bring fresh ideas, and they force those of us who’ve been here a while to sit up and pay attention. But obviously, there’s room for us too. We know this place the best, after all. Some argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and in many ways that will be true (client service, good solid legal advice, etc.). But let’s not let that argument be an excuse to avoid taking a hard look at ourselves and the ways that we can do better (remember the Stockdale Paradox?). 

As we continue stretching and growing through these chaotic times, I’ll be checking in with a series of posts dedicated to change – I’m learning on the job as we all are, so I’d like to use these as a way to work through some of these ideas with all of you and invite Zen readers to add their thoughts in the comments and social posts so that we can create a dialogue around this that’s useful to everyone. We’ve already done this over the past year, so let’s keep it going!

In today’s post, I’ll be combining a few bright minds on this topic – first, looking at some critical leadership skills, shared by Mark Beese, President of Leadership for Lawyers LLC. I sat in on a webinar he offered earlier this year on this very topic, and Mark’s thoughts on the three styles for change, as well as how to persuade each of these groups, helps to set the stage for how each of us can help to work within our own firms and organizations to help face the current trends head on.

Three Styles for Change

Mark looked at three ways that people within firms will approach change, and I’m sure all of these will be familiar to you – see which category you might fit into:

  • Conservers: Prefer incremental change. They’re not against change, but they only want to make small changes to the structure, and accept the structure as it is.
  • Originators: They challenge the structure, and prefer change that is expansive. They’re the type to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
  • Pragmatists: Like to explore the structure and prefer functional change. They usually end up moderating between the other two groups, and are more focused on the results than the structure.

I’d say I tend to fall in between being a pragmatist and an originator. Not surprisingly, most lawyers will be in the conserver category, which makes pushing for change challenging, but not impossible. An important item to note here is that firms and organizations will want to consider where there clients fall on this scale versus where their lawyers are. If your clients are largely in the pragmatist category, while the majority of your law firm is in the conserver category, that may not be a good fit.

The Art of Persuasion

Understanding which group the person you’re engaged with falls into is key to enacting change. Mark points out that social behavior is driven by minimizing threats and maximizing rewards, in these areas:

  • Status: their relative importance to others
  • Certainty: an understanding of what’s next/the future
  • Autonomy: a sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: a sense of safety/acceptance with others
  • Fairness: this can be related to compensation at law firms

As we would with a client, consider your audience when working to build consensus on a change item. Try to understand your proposal from their point of view, and frame it in a way that highlights the benefits to them. Mark suggests testing the proposal on trusted confidantes, and refining it as necessary. I particularly liked his suggestion for providing evidence for change (lawyers love facts and evidence) and connecting emotionally through storytelling.

Connecting into all of this is a book I was reading around the same time, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. I am naturally drawn to any book that helps me to identify ways to better engage my lawyers in the relationships that drive their business, so this was a perfect fit, and a smart read. There’s a lot to it, so I’ll encourage you to read the entire book and not dive too deeply into it today, but there are a few principles I’d like to touch on.

Finding a Noble Cause

One of the things that the authors talk about is the idea of finding a “noble cause.” This is the state that you want to bring about in your organization or firm through your action, and it must be bigger than what any one person can do alone. To get at this idea, you bring your “tribe” together and ask them – what is their highest aspiration for the tribe? And keep asking them “in service of what?” until you drill down to what you’ve identified as your noble cause. There are four questions you dig into along with this:

  • What’s working well?
  • What’s not working?
  • What can we do to make the things that aren’t working work?
  • Is there anything else?

This is clearly some uncomfortable work – and this is where the “how to” comes in for the Stockdale Paradox. If we’re serious about taking a look at the “brutal facts of reality,” then we need to dig deep and look at these things for our firms and organizations.

And yes, the idea of “tribes” and “noble causes” might sound a little bit silly to some of you. But consider for a moment the idea that you are building something bigger and stronger than just yourself with your firm. How do you unite with your colleagues in service of a common ideal? If you think that you’re already there, are you sure? Is it at least worth a check in with your partners, associates, and other professionals to ensure that you’re all working towards a common goal that you’re all enthusiastic about? It doesn’t have to be all pom poms and fireworks when you come into the office in the morning, but how about some quiet satisfaction that you’re in the right place, doing the right things, hand in hand with the right people? I know that’s what I want more of.

Once we have our noble cause (and it’s different for each firm/organization), what next?

Ask the Tough Questions

The authors of Tribal Leadership tell us that we have to ask ourselves some more tough questions. (I know, so many tough questions)

  • What do we want? What is the outcome? What is the present state of success that is going to morph into an even bigger victory over time?
  • What do we have? What are our assets? What do we have a knack for doing better than anyone else – and this is a really tough question that is hiding as an easy one. It sounds like a brochure question, right? What’s our specialty?! But this is where we’re required to be rigorously honest – what do we really do better than anyone else? And you may have to ask outside stakeholders how they view this. Then, the tribe must answer “yes” to three critical questions. First up: (1) Do we have enough assets to accomplish the outcomes? This is another question where rigorous honesty comes in, because our tendency is to want to say yes. But we may get stuck here if it’s a no, and a no is okay to start with. If it’s a no, look at how we build our assets, including writing down all behaviors that will build the assets that are needed – these can be physical, they can be people, they can be whatever you deem them to be.
  • What should we do to accomplish the outcomes? From the first two questions, you know what you want, and what you have (and it’s critical, says the authors, to have everything you need before you move onto this step). Now, you want to write down what the members of your tribe will do to be successful. This is what they WILL do, not what they are already doing – so unfortunately, my habit of writing things down on a list that I’m already doing, so that I can cross them off, will not come in handy. This is also where the next two critical questions come in:
    • (2) Do we have enough assets for these behaviors? What assets do we have that we haven’t identified yet? Is there a faster, cheaper way to get this done?
  • These are some really hard questions, and I would anticipate that some firms would get hung up here (if not earlier). That’s why I think it’s critical to begin with Mark’s lessons on leadership, and understanding the various ways that people approach change, and how you can build consensus within your firms/organizations. If you’re a bit of a pragmatist, like I am, you want to wipe the slate clean overnight and start fresh with big sweeping changes. This can sound great, and be entirely impractical in practice. The greatest lesson I learned when I started in legal was that any big idea I had was going to take at least two years to happen, and I was going to have to filter it through to a few other people so that they either championed it, or believed they had come up with it. Change in legal takes time and requires monumental amounts of patience. If you understand that, you can be successful.
    • (3) Will these behaviors accomplish our outcomes? This is also a deceptively easy question, because it seems that of course the answer would be yes. But again, we have to look critically at the behaviors being suggested, the motives behind them, and whether or not they will really contribute to the overall goals and outcomes.

Much of the above hinges on a critical factor, and that’s having the right people in place. I’d like to look at that in a future post. In the meantime, though, I’d love to get your thoughts on diving into this hard work of addressing the different approaches to change in your organizations, how to find a noble and uniting cause, and then asking these tough questions.