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Change management for lobsters

15 April 13

The ability not only to embrace change, but to achieve buy-in from colleagues and manage them through the process is the most important survival tool for partners and managers

by Dave Rattray

“Law firms are like lobsters, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Some law firms are like lobsters in a pan of warm water on the stove. They don’t realise what’s happening before it’s too late. Survival of the fittest, I suppose.” I reflected for a few moments on the provocative statement posed by my travelling companion, a managing partner in a mid-tier legal practice, on the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow. We had been discussing the tough business challenges facing Scottish law firms over the next few years and considering possible ways they might adapt to survive and thrive in this new world.

I told him that in my experience of managing change at partner level and firm-wide, with a range of practices in the UK, his “lobster” analogy did not totally hold true. The majority of managing partners and business development teams are well aware of the market volatility and know that they need to change the way they do business. They are aware that work will no longer “just walk through the door”, and that digital technology will create new threats and opportunities.

“So why is change so difficult for them?” he asked.

“Change is difficult for all of us,” I replied.

Embrace and survive

Change is inevitable and an inescapable fact, and mastering it presents us all with one of life’s greatest challenges.

All around us on the journey, people were using laptops, mobile phones, tablets and Kindles. Just five years ago, few senior publishing executives would have realised the massive evolutionary changes that would occur and the impact they would have on their industry and the high street. Even fewer would have embraced the changes and realigned their working practices and business model so that they were the ones who would seize the opportunities and become the new market leaders.

We are only three months into the year, and with the recent mergers, acquisitions and business failures, it is already clear that 2013 will be a monumental year of change for the legal sector in Scotland. Digital technology, in the shape of cloud computing, online service delivery platforms, websites and social media, has yet to realise its full impact on the legal sector. It is inevitable that the profession has to undergo significant change – but what will it look like in five years, and what changes need to be embraced right now?

I believe that the most important survival tool for partners in this age of disruption will be their ability to embrace and manage change. Here’s why.

Fear barrier

In Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, Richard Susskind argues that “the future looks bleak” for the conservative lawyer, but is “exciting and full of possibilities for the progressive firm”.

However, the major challenge for managing partners and business development teams is that change can be deeply unsettling and tends to be viewed by the fearful as a threat. So, even if executives create a strategy to navigate through uncharted territory, the success of the plan will be, to a large extent, dependent on their ability to bring the other partners and staff with them as they manage the change.

Most people naturally seek to maintain the status quo, and fear of change is the mechanism which mitigates against perceived loss by focusing on protecting what “you already have”. However, this creates a disconnection from the outside world and leads to the “lobster” viewpoint where people view reality as they’d like it to be and not what it really is.

Many lawyers would prefer to live with the frustrations they have, rather than endure the challenges of new ways of working, and this is a hurdle that firms need to overcome if they are to implement change in the workplace.

Sell the vision

I have found that change will only happen when the pain of staying the same is greater than the perceived pain of change, and then only when the firm has managed to get everybody to buy in to the absolute need to change.

Until all the people who touch the identified problems in the business are willing to buy into the disruption that occurs when the new solution enters, there will be no change of direction. Managers also need to know how to mitigate the risks that new strategy/ways of working will inevitably bring to the firm, or they will do nothing.

However, once the business understands how it can end in balance, it will be more willing to embrace change.

I believe that in reality, change is not actually a thing in itself, but a manifestation of possibilities, providing us with an opportunity to sacrifice what we are today for what we could become tomorrow.

My friend on the train had alluded to Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”, but here’s what Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species in 1859: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one that proves itself most responsive to change.”

There are three kinds of law firm: those that embrace change and proactively make things happen, those who let things happen to them, and those who will wonder what the heck happened?

Managing partners must create a vision for their firms, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion. Embrace change before you have to. Control your destiny, or someone else will.

Dave Rattray is the co-founder of Leverage Business Peformance, which provides consultancy and support services to the legal profession
w: www.leveragebusinessperformance.com

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