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If you're serious about transforming your law firm, odds are high you have a number of obstacles to conquer. Here are pointers for overcoming the most common pitfalls that managing partners encounter in implementing change.
1. Managing Instead of Leading Change Change is about flow, energy and creating something new. Managers concentrate on controlling, organizing and problem solving. Leaders focus on motivating and inspiring, establishing direction and aligning people—and they also know when to let go. True change requires leadership, not management.
Transforming your firm requires that you know, use and, where necessary, further develop your leadership skills. It also requires that you create a team of other leaders around you—people with the ability to inspire and get others so much involved that the necessary transformation will occur at all levels.
These leaders could be partners in your firm, but a warning: The promotion from associate to partner typically is based on legal and financial accomplishments, which are not things that automatically prepare a partner to lead change. So choose your leaders wisely—and invest in leadership development, especially for promising associates.
2. Inadequate Goal Setting Change occurs in three phases: setting the right goal, realizing the goal and anchoring the change. The first phase is typically neglected or mishandled. Goals are often chosen too quickly, with no clear awareness of the underlying problems that the firm is trying to solve. As a consequence, the wrong goals get chosen.
Another problem is when the goal is too dry or abstract, leaving key players unmotivated or neutral toward the goal. Choosing an inspiring goal, in contrast, naturally leads to a more fluent, organic change process with less direction on your part. A goal that inspires or motivates you will allow you to inspire or motivate others. Moreover, key players who are motivated by the goal will insist on being part of the process.
Also, the goal should be reachable in a relatively short period. If you want to tap the energy that drives change, you need to create some quick wins. Quick wins accelerate the longer-term change process. For broad cultural change goals, which can take years to realize, it is better to divide the goal into parts to make it achievable in smaller, manageable pieces.
So keep goals simple and do not over-reach. Create awareness of the real problems. Choose one inspiring goal at a time, and root that goal deeply in your firm. After each success, choose the next goal.
3. Too Much Top-Down Direction Successful change is a result of an interaction between top-down steering and bottom-up involvement. Hardly any change process is successful (especially for the long-term) with only direction setting from the partners. Real transformation in your law firm will only happen if top-down and bottom-up efforts meet and unite.
Do not ignore key players in your change process, including associates and the office manager. Do not overestimate what you can accomplish solely by using edicts or proclamations. The three phases of change need the participation of all layers in the organization.
4. Poor Communication Good communication is crucial to discovering what needs to be changed and where resistance exists. That’s why you must approach transformation in your firm with a strong emphasis on communication. Talk but most of all listen—listen to your partners, associates, paralegals, administrator and staff.
If you give yourself a break from talking, you will be amazed at what you learn. Start from a place of discovery and connect to your organization by listening. Listening is a great first step to long-lasting change.
5. Overreliance on Consultants Many firms hire a consultant to lead or create change, versus driving the process from inside the organization. Perhaps the most horrifying reason given is: “We, the partners, are too busy with our primary tasks.”
As a law firm partner, you know how to delegate. However, you also know that some items cannot be delegated. Leadership of a change process is one of them. You can hire a consultant to support you, to develop awareness of the change you want to instill, to advise, to strengthen leadership skills, and to make the process easier and less time-consuming. But you have to lead the change yourself if you want to cause real transformation.
6. Creation of an Unnecessary Task Force Lastly, although task forces are quite common in change processes, beware of using them. By forming a task force, you create distance between the members of the task force and those who are not on it. This distance will hurt the communication that’s so critical to a change project.
Moreover, task forces diminish the sense of ownership for others in the firm and, thus, delay the change from taking hold. Take care that your entire firm, and not a task force, owns the change if you really want to pull the firm forward. Use the normal lines of hierarchy and communication instead, adjusting them as necessary.
Carla Schnitker is a law firm management and marketing advisor. Formerly a working attorney, she specializes in change management and leadership development.