April 2006
Volume 2, Number 3
Table of Contents

How To Become An Agent For Change In Your Law Firm

Change is definitely not easy. In many instances, fear of the unknown and a perceived loss of control trigger a visceral response that makes change difficult to handle. As Tracy LaLonde, associate development administrator for Chicago's Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, explained at NALP's 2005 annual meeting in Chicago, such fear is why data suggests that 70% of all change initiatives fail to meet their expected outcomes.

Why change efforts fail. According to LaLonde, the following issues are usually at play:

1. Lack of top management commitment to and support for change initiatives. In this instance, partners may pay lip service to your ideas for change or their support wanes over time because they get distracted by something else. The issue: Keeping key decision makers engaged throughout the entire process.

2. Employees don't completely embrace the change. If you don't inculcate into their hearts and minds that change is good, then your efforts won't transform the culture and reverberate for the long haul. The issue: Too much focus on the change itself and not enough time devoted to bringing those affected by the change into the fold.

3. Individuals don't receive enough feedback, coaching, or reinforcement. Even changes that seem rational and logical can instill fear. The issue: People are presented with a change and expected to "suck it up."

How to cushion the blow for imminent change. LaLonde recommends the change model created by Kurt Lewin, a German psychologist and one of the pioneers of social psychology. Under Lewin's model, she explains, you "unfreeze what was there before by giving folks a reason to change their beliefs or buy into your beliefs." In short, you must: (1) Mitigate the reasons against change; (2) Move people into the new initiative; and (3) "Refreeze" those affected by the change by providing the systems, supports, rationale, incentives, and rewards to keep them where they have been moved. It's a simple model that goes a long way toward helping you think about the change process, LaLonde adds.

Another model, presented by John Cotter, a Harvard leadership professor and author of Leading Change, asserts that when hoping to generate support for change, it's necessary to think about it in two ways: individual support and management support.

In the law firm context, a comprehensive approach requires that you:

• Secure management support. Focus on high-ranking management (managing partner) and middle management (practice leader heads). While these leaders can hand down the edict for change, middle management makes the change happen, LaLonde told attendees. Here are three suggestions to consider:

-- Create an advisory board to champion your efforts and position power. In the best-case scenario, she says, you can get a member of top management to sit on your committee along with the middle managers who will be responsible for implementing the change.

-- Aim to include your biggest naysayer on the board, LaLonde recommends, adding that the goal is to field his or her objections in order to win over everyone else.

-- Include those who have the greatest level of expertise in your law firm, people with an understanding of the systems involved, someone admired for their strong credibility in the firm, and other influential leaders who are willing to stick around for the duration.

• Develop a vision and strategy. A vision, LaLonde told attendees, outlines why it's necessary to strive and create your picture of the future. It's the "what" part of the equation. Consider: What makes your future picture so good?

A vision also serves three important purposes: (1) It shows where you're going and simplifies decision making; (2) It motivates people, even if the steps are painful; and (3) It helps coordinate the actions of people in a fast and efficient manner.

In addition, the vision needs to convey a picture, and seem reasonable, feasible, realistic, and attainable. A vision of "We want to make more money," for instance, has no direction, whereas "We want to be on the top-10 list of highest revenue firms" is focused in that it gives people something to work toward. Strategy, on the other hand, relates to the "how," and a number of strategies can support your vision.

According to LaLonde, "Top management leadership for your advisory board often creates the vision and strategies, and middle management picks up with the plans and does the activities."

• Communicate and keep your vision simple, meaning you can convey it in five minutes or less by using metaphors, analogies, and other descriptive examples (e.g., "We want our firm to be the hare, instead of the tortoise"). Use multiple forums as well, like e-mail, meetings, flyers, small tokens of appreciation, and any other approach that can help you create buzz and easily repeat your message.

• Seek and offer leadership by example (for more on this point, see the accompanying sidebar). Know, too, that partner acceptance is critical, LaLonde says, noting that if your change imposes hard rules, be sure the partners are willing to make sacrifices as well. The point: Remove all impressions that your changes apply to everyone except your firm's upper-level members.

• Provide ample opportunities for those managing the change to meet and talk with the rank-and-file.

The pointers below, LaLonde told attendees, should help you think about how to communicate with individuals on a variety of levels. Her suggestions:

• Provide forums for discussion. Some people will want information in writing so they can think through your proposed changes while others prefer a step-by-step outline of what will happen now and in the future.

• Lawyers typically want to apply logic, so any change initiative that deals with your attorneys must include clear and concise statements explaining "why," LaLonde says. Consider the individual's motivation, too, by providing insight on personal recognition. And offer milestones so people know when they're advancing. The point: Think about your communication efforts and give enough chances for people to react to your change in a variety of ways.

• Empower people so they're able, willing, and ready to go along with the change. Empowering actions deal with attitude and capability. In an ideal scenario, everyone is eager and open to change, but this happens only 5% of the time, LaLonde says. In another scenario, people are able to change-they have the skills, knowledge, systems, etc.-yet they resist. This, she contends, is the most difficult to overcome since attitude is so personal.

In some instances, people are willing to change, but unable to do so. Here, training and systems go a long way. And in the final scenario, people are unwilling and unable to change-the toughest situation to diagnose.

The point: Take care and assess the readiness of your audience. In circumstances where people aren't ready, your change may likely not be as successful as you'd like. Full empowerment requires your firm to have structures in place to support your change.

• Train regularly and with intensity. LaLonde offers the example of organizations that are downsizing, which inevitably leads to defections as people get nervous about their futures and leave for more predictable and stable work environments. In such instances, training can ease fears, stem attrition, and even provide assistance with the transition, says LaLonde.

• Revisit your firm's systems, including those relating to performance evaluations, bonus structures, and the like to ensure existing systems support your new approach.

• Empower your supervisors. Middle managers, like department heads, often get sandwiched. People who work for them wonder why things need to change and firm leaders just want to get it done, so the goal is to empower them with information and resources.

• Show evidence of success and perseverance. Revel in your short-term wins or milestones; they provide evidence that the changes in behavior and sacrifices are worth it in the long-run, says LaLonde. They also provide you with a moment to relax and celebrate. "Milestones are also great because they are so visible, unambiguous, and clearly related to the change effort."

• Remember, nothing changes unless you transform your culture. LaLonde recommends thinking of culture like a city sewer system: "You know it's there running under the streets; you sometimes smell it, but often it's invisible. Until you get deep down within the organization and make changes-which takes a long time-changes won't stick."

How to Lead Your Law Firm Through Change

In their book, Leading with Authenticity in Times of Transition authors Kerry Bunker and Michael Wakefield offer five actions that can earn your followers' trust when leading the firm through disruptive changes:

1. Be authentic. Maintaining trust is critical to a successful transition. In difficult times, leaders are often tempted to offer canned answers and to keep communication impersonal resulting from their own stress and sense of responsibility to management. But these practices are two of the fastest ways to lose the trust of members of your firm. Cut to the chase with honest answers and real feelings.

2. Be empathetic and honest. Leaders naturally feel the need to keep their people focused on the bottom line at any cost. But the cost is often loss of trust from an excellent employee.

3. Give employees time to digest change. It's a mistake to make longstanding judgments about an employee based on an initial response to change. People commonly need time to sort it out. Once an employee has navigated the emotions connected with change, he or she may turn out to be your greatest asset.

4. Give yourself time to digest the change. When leaders show reservations or other emotions spurred by change, they compromise their ability to lead with authenticity and to help others cope. Take time to adjust.

5. Keep your doors open. Show people they can talk to you. Let them know you understand their concerns. With empathy comes trust.

(Source: Michael Wakefield and Kerry Bunker, Center for Creative Leadership)

Copr. (C) 2006 West, a Thomson business. No claim to orig. U.S. govt. works. This article is reprinted with permission from West, a primary sponsor of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.

This first appeared in Law Office Management and Administration Report, March, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Institute of Management and Administration Inc.


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