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’ve been talking an awful lot about it lately, and in light of what was revealed in the recent Altman Weil study, that there seems to be some “change fatigue” brought about by the challenges of shifting the thinking in your firm, it makes sense to start any discussion about change by talking about the people.

Mark Beese, President of Leadership for Lawyers LLC, recently shared some critical leadership skills, focusing on three styles for change, and how to persuade each of the groups that comprise these styles. His ideas help to set the stage for how each of us can help work within our own firms and organizations to help face the current trends head on.

Three Styles for Change

We’ve discussed some of these in a limited way before, but Mark puts a name to them. Consider which category you fall 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. Those in this group are the ones that we’ve mentioned will want to see the results of pilot tests before moving forward, they’ll want to know what other firms are doing, and they’re a bit more forward thinking than those who refuse change outright, but they still tend to want to stick with the status quo.
  • Originators: They challenge the structure, and prefer change that is expansive. They’re the type to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Those who are excited about innovation will fall into this group.
  • 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 their 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. I can hear some of you arguing with me on this point already, but consider that if you have clients who are all originators, they’ll be happy to test out alternative service providers, look for firms who are taking risks and making big changes, and fully embrace technology. If that’s really not your firm, they probably won’t stick around.

The Art of Persuasion

Understanding which group the person you’re engaged with falls into is key to enacting change. Not only do you need to understand where YOU fall on this scale, but also where each of those that you’re trying to convince fall. 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 (this is why it’s helpful if leaders of the firm are pragmatists, or try to rein in any originator tendencies). You’ll want to choose one item at a time that you’re trying to change, or if you’re changing multiple things, work on those incrementally and with pilot groups. 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. It can be tempting to want to throw down ideas and implement them, but when you’re addressing potentially large scale changes, especially in a group that is adverse to change generally, it’s preferable to massage it a little bit. Remember you’re working with individuals, who will each have their own style for change and motivations for persuasion. It’s a daunting task in a world that is moving quickly, but by being sensitive to your audience (your lawyers, professional staff, clients), identifying how they deal with change, and how you can push them along to change, you’ll make much quicker progress than insisting on your own ideas.

In a follow up post, we’ll talk about some additional practical steps for motivating the members of your firm to change.