Changing Law Firms: 5 Principles For Successful Change Management

Tue 07 Dec 2021

Humans, generally speaking, do not enjoy change. Our desire to avoid it is well documented. Most of us will walk the same route to work each day. We will order our favorite food from a takeaway restaurant, rather than try something new. We find the familiar comforting. However, most of us are also aware that change is necessary. Essential even. 

In law firms change has been creeping up. Following the 2008 financial crisis, clients have pushed back to demand transparency and the industry has seen a wealth of technology enter the day to day lives of legal professionals. However, because of the risk averse nature of legal work, law firms themselves are still struggling with change management. How do you successfully introduce new technology? How do you increase engagement with new processes? How do you even decide where to start? 

At Clocktimizer, we have experienced successful change management while working internally at law firms. We have also worked together with many of the law firms currently using our platform to facilitate it. Over the coming weeks, we will be looking at sharing much of the knowledge we have accumulated during this process in our 'Changing law firms' blog series. This week, we look at the principles for change management in law firms. In coming weeks we share change implementation strategies, vendor interviews for optimizing roll-outs and even how to monetize change in your firm. At the end we will release all of this information as a free e-book available for download through our website.

Why change matters

How many of the world's largest corporations are currently doing the exact same thing as they did when they were founded? Amazon was once a site which only sold books. Google was just a search engine. The same can be said of law firms. Firms have evolved around the way societies and businesses function. Embracing technology is one facet of this. But so is the deepening of the client/firm relationship and the way that affects service delivery. In light of the inevitability of change then, firms must be able to manage that change efficiently. 

Those in change management will already be familiar with ideologies like Kaizen. This is the Japanese art of 'constant improvement' and is one of the ways of identifying and improving upon all aspects of a business. It is entirely possible to fall down an endless Google rabbit hole searching for principles, schemes and plans for managing change in house (we'd recommend it actually, it is a fascinating topic). At Clocktimizer, we have distilled them down to five core principles:

  1. Align your top down strategy, with your bottom up execution
  2. Incremental change is most effective
  3. Data should guide your decisions
  4. Be flexible 
  5. Communicate effectively and often

Align your top-down, and bottom-up, strategies

The first, and in our opinion, most important of all change management principles is to align strategy and execution. Because change can be so disruptive, it is essential to know why it is needed, what it should address and who will implement it. This is all tied in to your firm's overarching strategy. Where do you want your firm to be in ten years? How can you reach and support those goals? Will the change be implemented in the most effective way for your employees?

This principle is often incompletely executed either from the bottom up or the top down perspective. Firms which fail to have all of their senior management on board and engaged with the change process, fail the first part. Firms which do not embrace data collection, and to understand the day to day running of the firm will likely fail the second part. By aligning your data, technology and firm strategy you give innovation the greatest possible chance of success.

Incremental change is the most effective

The success of change management must, to a certain extent, rest up the way humans accept change. It is very rare for a completely disruptive technology or process to be immediately accepted. Particularly in a working environment. Instead of burning bridges and upending everyone's daily routine, develop and introduce changes incrementally. We see a number of advantages to this approach:

  • Incremental changes allow a more precise measurement of their relative success. This can then determine the next steps in your innovation cycle
  • Big changes can lead to unforeseen outcomes or effects which are difficult to control. Small changes are more focused and likely solve a problem more successfully than a 'jack of all trades'
  • Incremental development in R&D projects is already a proven way of preventing projects becoming bulky and unwieldy. This can keep R&D costs low in law firms, and can allow you to cut your losses quickly if things prove unsuccessful
  • Human beings like incremental change more. If a use case is easy to see, and the change itself is relatively smaller, it is more likely that the innovation will be adopted

Data should guide your decisions

Like our aversion to change, human beings are also prone to a lot of thought-based fallacies. We have written plenty about data fallacies in our Introduction to Machine Learning e-book, available here. In short, humans often form relationships between data sets that do not exist (yes, wearing a pair of lucky socks is highly unlikely to improve your chances at poker); or ignore relationships because they seem absurd. However, data itself doesn't lie. 

Data is important to change management in three major aspects. First, it can help decide where to focus innovation. Which processes are slow? Where do we lose most of our revenue? Which clients are our most valuable? Data can answer these questions, and help identify areas ripe for improvement. Secondly, data can help measure the success of an innovation. By comparing results from before and after the change, you can determine whether your change was effective. Finally, data can be used to motivate change. By gamifying your change process - either through a points system, or a leaderboard of sorts, you can motivate those taking part in the change. Those wishing to learn more about gamification, and its relative merits for change motivation, can check out this fun introduction by Bunchball.

Be flexible

It should go without saying, but flexibility is essential to any successful change management effort. Things will not always implement in the way you anticipate. Firms evolve, and so do their priorities. Building flexibility into your workflow and management processes, mean that you can roll with the proverbial punches. 

Embracing flexible working styles, like agile, can help this process along. It can also prevent sinking an excessive amount of time into a single project before realizing that it isn't going to suit your needs. These principles can (and should) be extended beyond the workflow of teams in firms, to the way firms assess and purchase technology itself. RfPs, or requests for procurement, are bidding systems for new technology. In it firms share a laundry list of wishes and desires for a piece of technology, before awarding the contract to the tool which ticks the most boxes. However, a process like this is slow, cumbersome, and often fails to deliver. Combining multiple smaller tools, through APIs, is more flexible, and gives you less of a single point of failure, should a tool fail to meet expectations.

Communicate effectively 

This is another area under which much change management often fails. Communication itself is not sufficiently effective. How do you communicate? Through which channels? Who is doing that communication? These are all questions you must answer before beginning your change process. 

There are many tools to help you understand and improve your change process. Emails are often ignored, and meetings are often boring. So consider alternative options. Make sure that the person delivering the message has sufficient seniority (or even sufficient support of senior executives) that their message is taken seriously. Try to recruit champions, who will be able to convince the unsure about the necessity and the efficacy of the change. Make sure that all the necessary information is given before it is needed. There is nothing more frustrating than having to go and seek out an answer that should have already been given to you.

Next week's blog

Having explained our principles for change management, we look at the next stage for law firms. Implementation. We share how to build a project timeline, and a sample roadmap to ensure your change management process goes as smoothly as possible.

Illustration by Tara Lingard

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