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Change in legal services: how to start and keep going

Everyone I have met recently in the legal services industry agrees about the need for change.  Most are taking steps to change some aspects of their practice, whether it be on an individual, team or firm-wide level.

Broadly the approach to change I see and hear about can be best described as incremental. There is nothing wrong with incremental change.  Quiet engagement in incremental change can achieve a lot.

So rather than feel burdened by the need to ‘innovate’ and ‘disrupt’ the legal services industry (and shout about it) why not focus on sustaining incremental change?  This is not always easy, but keeping incremental change going and reaching realistic objectives should be achievable.

In this post I’d like to encourage you to start and sustain incremental change.


Keep client need in mind

Most people find the best places to start making workplace changes of various kinds are with internal projects, those areas which do not immediately impact directly upon client services.

This can be a good place to begin but try to avoid looking inwards for too long.

The raison d’etre of lawyers is to provide good legal services to their clients.  Hence the most the most worthwhile changes are those which make a positive difference to the client experience.


Look for client insight data

Obtaining client insight data is not hard to do, yet many law firms still do not conduct client surveys regularly.  Of those that do, too many fail to analyse their survey data regularly and implement action plans to improve as a result.  I still find it frustrating that so many law firms do not invest in client improvement programmes.

In the absence of firm-wide client insight data it should be relatively easy to reach-out to clients from your own practice group workstream.  In my experience clients are quite happy to provide feedback and insight if they asked appropriately.

Explaining to clients that you would like their feedback to help improve future service to them and others similarly placed is often like pushing against an open door.


Disseminate client insight data

Given the siloed nature of most law firms, it’s not healthy for client survey data or knowledge about client business practices reside solely with marketing, business development, the senior leadership team or in any other kind of silo.

It is possible to disseminate client insight data throughout the firm in such a way that neither client confidentially nor data protection laws are compromised.  So why not share client insight data and let practice teams and workgroups work-out what it is they need to do to improve their client service?


Articulate the voice of the client

A small and visually powerful step to help with client focused change is to adopt the habit of having an empty chair during meetings, especially those concerned with strategy and problem solving

The empty chair represents the voice of the client.  Every once in a while turn to the empty chair and ask: what would our clients want us to do?  What would a typical client say if they were present in this meeting now?

Alternatively, ask colleagues who are attending the meeting to take turns sitting in the client chair.  If they were a client, what would they say?


Build a coalition of the willing

Most young legal service professionals (not just lawyers) are quite relaxed about change.  Probably because they have not been around long enough to become overly fixated on set ways of doing things.  In my experience younger legal service professionals are eager to acquire new skills, take responsibility and much prefer flexible working.

It is often said that resistance to change comes from the most senior lawyers in the firm.  This may be true, but it’s not an insurmountable hurdle to overcome.  You can build momentum for change initiatives from the ground up.  Lots of mid-level staff are also willing, and able, to change things.  Work with them to implement some relatively small change initiatives and create a coalition of the willing.


Look out for sponsors on the senior leadership team

Very senior people are not always against change.  There have been times in my career when senior people have backed change proposals I have put forward.  Creating a short and convincing business case and advocating change (whether by 1:1 meetings or larger group presentations) can bear fruit.

This is especially so if you can adopt that voice of the client. If you have an idea for change and especially if you have some client insight data to substantiate it, keep promoting the idea and build some momentum behind it.

Remember too that not everyone in leadership teams are the same.  Some will be more receptive to change than others.  The obvious thing to do is to look for the more receptive leaders and take your change ideas to them as a starting point.

One of the senior leaders you reach out to may become (ether formally or informally) a sponsor of your change initiative.  Having an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and influential sponsor is the ideal.


Start small

Personally, I think the number one rule of any change initiative is: don’t aim for a ‘big bang’ approach.  The fact is that even traditional big bang changes such as organisation-wide software roll-outs are (or should be) the result of a lot of smaller controlled testing and ‘soft’ or smaller roll-outs.

I think the same principles should apply to any kind of change.  You could try a ‘soft launch’, or if you like, some informal change, perhaps working with just a few people and on just some aspects of your current working practices.

If the small changes succeed then take the next steps to plant and grow more changes.


Learn lessons

If the soft or informal changes are not working as successfully as you had hoped, that’s OK too.

You will have learned some lessons along the way.  If you are convinced the objective you have in mind is still a good one, then moderate your approach considering the lessons learned and try again.


Communicate effectively

As with projects of any kind, effective communications are vital for successful change initiatives.

Effective communication is a never ending topic.  All I would like to suggest here is to remind yourself of the difference between communication and providing information.

The latter is a one-way process.  To be effective you need to be clear about what information you are conveying, why you are conveying it and how to convey it.

Communication is a two-way process.  You need to be prepared to give others a chance to have their say and be prepared to act on what they are saying.  If you are not prepared to act on the information you are receiving back, I don’t think you are engaged in proper communication.

The reason why communication is so important is that you need to bring people with you on the change journey.  If you don’t bring people with you, then your change initiative will fail.  No ifs or buts –  it will fail.  This is because, despite the prevalence of technology impacting on almost every aspect of our lives, change is ultimately about getting people to alter their behaviour in some way.


Celebrate success

Track your change progress and, once you are sure the change has been successful, celebrate.  Seriously.  The celebration might be something as small as bringing in some cakes for your fellow change agents, but however you do it the success should be celebrated.  Rest assured, you will have earned it!

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