Meeting and Overcoming Lawyers’ Resistance to Change; How Are Changes Required by the New Era Effectively Adopted and Incorporated Within the Law Firm?

An IBM Selectric typewriter, model 713 (Select...

An IBM Selectric typewriter, model 713 (Selectric I with 11" writing line), circa 1970. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Times — They Are Changing


How to Overcome Lawyers’ Innate Resistance to Change


                                                                             Jerome Kowalski

                                                                             June, 2010

In the early 1970’s, when I was a very young lawyer, exciting new technologies, or at least what we then saw as exciting new technologies, were sweeping the profession.  Some of you may even recall what we old timers then saw as “holy crap” moments (this is a family blog, after all).  Some readers won’t even know what I am talking about. There are many arcane terms used below; you may need to ask your parents or grandparents to explain them.

The Changes of the Late 20th Century

The “mag card” typewriters – IBM Selectric typewriter with a “memory” that retained information typed on the machine (no screen – the typist had to find particular entries through trial and error and sheer dumb luck to find the part that required editing).  But, the document could be printed at the lightening speed of four minutes a page.  Vydec machines; a prehistoric version of a word processor; (it was the size and had the feel of a small space station). It came with a screen, and, gets this, the ability to print a document at a warp speed of two minutes a page. Portable hand held dictating equipment.  Direct dial telephone numbers; Voice mail (one of my former partners threatened to vote to dissolve the partnership if the firm acquired a voice mail system). Computerized time keeping and billing.  Sharing secretaries. Lexis. High speed printers.

My personal favorite was the fax machine. The device then cost upwards of $15,000 a unit, and, get a load of this: you could stick a document in, dial a number and then, assuming the proposed recipient also had a fax machine in some other part of the world, the recipient would receive an exact copy, printed out on long endless rolls of wax paper – at the amazing rate of four minutes a page. Long documents produced a ribbon of wax paper that might stretch to the size of a football speed.

Then ultimately, two decades before the Internet, PC’s, which actually was my second favorite, since prior to the early 90’s, virtually no lawyer had a clue as to what they were or how to use them.

All of these innovations, and many, many more had a few things in common:  One, at first, only the largest and best firms initially acquired these marvels. Second, anybody then over the ripe old age of 40 resisted each change. Smaller and midsize firms refused to invest in these technologies. The “older” generation swore they would never use them. But, slowly, and I do mean very slowly, each (and others not mentioned here) became regular tools of the trade.

As I said, faxes were one of my favorites. It was initially a sign of enormous prestige for a law firm to boast a fax number on its letterhead. Most still had cable addresses (if you don’t know what these are, ask your parents). Fax use spread at a snail’s pace. An older acquaintance, a single New York practitioner, an old family friend, finally succumbed to the pressure of an important client in Pittsburgh and invested $1,000 and purchased one. He had his mail room person unpack the contraption, read the instructions and install the device. Later that day, the lawyer dictated a long letter to his secretary, who used Pittman shorthand, who then transcribed it, using carbon paper for the two required office copies (who remembers this 0 and 2?).  Changes and typos were made by cutting and pasting. The lawyer summoned the mailroom guy and bellowed (proudly) “fax this letter to Pittsburgh.”

The lawyer returned to other matters and two hours later the wildly angry client called and demanded “Murray!! What are you doing?  I have 40 copies of your letter and you’re totally tying up our fax machine.”

Murray charged in to the mailroom and demanded to know what was going on.  “Boss, “the mailroom attendant said, “I was just going to come in and see you.  The machine is broken.  I keep putting the document in, dialing the number, hit the send button and it keeps coming out on the other side.”

My second favorite was the desk top PC.  In the early 80’s almost no lawyer had a clue as to what they were, except that they looked real neat.  In 1985, while I was 35 year old partner in the world’s second largest law firm and absolutely nobody at my firm had a PC (and even if they did, wouldn’t have a clue as to how use them or their reason for existence), I traveled on business to Denver to work with a midsize firm which was our co-counsel on a matter. I was blown away by the fact that each lawyer in the Denver firm had a PC on his or her desk.  I asked my Denver counterpart what this paraphernalia was.  He said he didn’t have a clue; one of the managing partners bought a bunch of screens, mounted them in each lawyer’s office and visiting clients were simply wowed by their existence.

Kicking, fighting and screaming, the profession as a whole and individual lawyers adapted to these changes and more.

The point is that lawyers are genetically resistant to change.

21st Century Changes

The changes described above are mere child’s play when compared to the economy’s enormous demands that lawyers engage in spectacular change or join the piles of dinosaur bones: As Jeffrey Carr, General Counsel (and Five Star General of the army of corporate counsel demanding change)  of FMC Technologies said To quote a former U.S. Army chief of Staff, ‘If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more .’”

We know the changes demanded of us:

Alternative Fee Arrangements

Get to know the ACC Value Challenge and live up to its standards.

Give us a real budget on an engagement and live up to it.

Take on some of the risk when we engage you.

Give us a quality product and do so efficiently.

Train your associates on your nickel and we’ll pay for them when they know what they are doing

Recognize, as we do, the inefficiencies and high costs hourly billing breeds.

Don’t overstaff or overwork a case.

Provide true transparency in the billing process.

There are plenty of providers for legal services and less demand for outside counsel. You’re going to have to meet the competition.

Well, all of that is easy. Perhaps. But given the professions’ genetic resistance to change how does the profession and how do law firms overcome that resistance?

In fact, resistance to change is not unique to the profession. It is widely known among psychologists and much ink has been devoted to the issue, including a note by Dr. A. J. Schuler, the observations of Value Based Management, strategies suggested by Team Building, Inc., and the more detailed exposition of The American Society for Quality.

In fact, there is nothing unique to the legal profession’s resistance to change. It exists in every stratum. A century’s study by academia and management professionals of resistance to change, applied to the law firm community, dictates the methodology which must be embraced by law firms to avoid extinction.

Transparency.  Perhaps one of the most overused nouns of the decade; it does have real resonance here and is, indeed, the core principle to lawyers’ endemic resistance to change in the new era.  Transparency must be adopted by law firms within every aspect of their very own societal culture and permeate every fiber of their being. Transparency is not limited to dealing with clients alone; it must be part of every law firm’s culture. Fear of change is brought about by fear of the unknown and inherent uncertainty of the future. In days of yore, associates, and, indeed partners, hade simple metrics by which they could readily determine their own compensation. Minimal hour billing requirements yielded certainty of compensation; meeting higher hours billed equaled a guaranteed bonus. Bringing in a level of revenues yielded an arithmetic equation by which partner compensation could be calculated.

Management must share openly with the partnership how demands by a newly empowered client base will be met and engage in open dialogue regarding how these challenges will be dealt with by the law firm. Dialogue means active and full participation and consideration of substantive productive suggestions and ideas of the full partnership, a clear, common and shared understanding of the challenges confronting the law firm and how they are going to be met.  Sorry, top down management and fiat doesn’t work here.

Transparency also means that associates participate regularly in the discussion, understand the client demands and be part of the dialogue in which how these challenges will be addressed.  Do not set hearts thumping and, more important, fear of the unknown, by summoning the troops to a conference room and issue diktats from on high. That is, unless you want your associates live in total fear and uncertainty and have an insatiable desire to provide grist to Above the Law and the rest of the blogosphere about imagined chaos at the law firm.  Clients and potential laterals read this stuff; more traditional trade journals report on it, fed by the blogosphere. It has become the 21st century’s version of the childhood game of “telephone.”

A simple case in point: Had management openly discussed with the associate corps in 2009 the need to reduce payroll of the professional staff in 2009 and offered them the option to have a secret ballot of one of two options, namely, reduce salaries across the board or terminate some number of associates, there is little doubt that the vote would have been overwhelmingly for the former and an enhanced sense of common cause, rather than fear or resentment resulted.

And now, let’s get down to same basic principles of human nature, not confined exclusively to the legal profession. Actually, lessons learned over a century by management professionals:

1.    We all fear that the risk of change is greater than the risk of standing still.  The full and open dialogue now mandated, as discussed above,  is designed in large measure to convey to the law firm’s entire community that the risk of standing still is far greater than the risk of standing still. Be sure that the message conveyed is an institutional sea change is required to be undertaken by the firm to survive as a continuing and thriving institution.  The message: The risk of standing still far outweighs the need for change.

2.    The nature of organizational life is that members of the lower level of the totem pole look to their seniors for role modeling. Young associates dress and act like their seniors. Senior associates dress and act like partners. Organizational life is one in which tone, tenor and style is indeed top down and set by example. Accordingly, as younger associates observe their seniors, mentors and role models adapting to the new realities, so will they.

3.       The great motivator is the carrot and stick. Accordingly, lawyers within the firm adapting to and meeting the new challenges to the profession are those who should be rewarded.  New yardsticks for compensation must be developed and clearly communicated. Instead of the old metrics for calculating compensation on the old “minder, finder and grinder” measure,  the new yardsticks must be based on rating lawyers (and compensating them), utilizing numerical scores, on the identical scoring system of the ACC Value Index: [1] understanding objectives/expectations; [2] legal expertise; [3] efficiency/process management; [4] responsiveness/communications; [5] predictable cost budgeting skills; and [6] results delivered/execution. Lawyers within the firm must be educated on these new requirements and the annual review process demands that those who convey the reviews explain in detail how the yardsticks were applied in assessing performance and areas in which improvement is required.

4.     At the same time, the law firm must instill a communal notion that attracting new clients, serving those clients and retaining them is a firm-wide obligation; part of the woof and fabric of the institution.  Just as those who meet high grades using an internally applied ACC Value Index, so too should these efforts be gauged and included in the calculus of pain and pleasure on an individual basis, but viewed in the context of the firm as ongoing enterprise. Transitioning in to the new “new” should not be viewed as a threat to those who have the talent and ability to bring in new clients and simply be rewarded for those critical efforts.  Rather, adapting to the new world will require weaning and time and should not be seen as a threat to those who had achieved money, fame and glory because of their unique ability to bring in new clients. Law firms and its partners simply need to begin to remove the personal pronoun and use the collective pronoun in reference to clients; it’s no longer “my” client, it’s “our client.”

5.      Prevent systemic and personal overload by expecting and requiring changes overnight. Regular roundtables and group meetings must merge as a critical of the firm during which the new yardsticks are discussed; difficulties (no doubt shared by partner and associate alike), are discussed openly, with no judgmental factors attached. Participants should be encouraged to raise problems they may have encountered in this new paradigm and invite suggestions from those assembled on how to meet these challenges.  Regular discussion of how the firm is meeting new client requirements removes fear of change, embracing change, have the competence to meet change, remove skepticism of change, threat of changes in personal standing wrought by change and universal buy in to its application and essential need.

© Jerome Kowalski, June, 2010.  All Rights Reserved.


3 Responses

  1. […] 10.  Take stock of your colleagues’ ability to adapt to the revolutionary changes required of lawyers in this challenging and unprecedented competitive economy and make sure that your partners’ resistance to change is being treated with appropriate antibodies. […]

  2. […] induced them to leave when there was a dip in revenues. Yes, lawyers do resist change, as I previously reported.  But that innate resistance to change must be overcome by leadership and sound management […]

  3. […] many lawyers resisted every change to the way they do business, they were often left with little choice but be dragged along, often […]

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