The Changing Lawyer - Leading the Charge

by Litera Microsystems

If law firms are to embrace effective change they need strong leaders with strategic vision and the ability to secure buy-in from their colleagues

In his book The End of Lawyers?, author and legal tech expert Richard Susskind writes: “It is not easy to convince a group of millionaires... that their business model is wrong.”

Is his assessment too harsh? Possibly. One could argue that the partnership model has served the legal profession pretty well for decades. Nonetheless, Susskind’s comment may strike a chord with non-equity leaders throughout law firms. How do they champion change in a business where authority is concentrated in the highest echelon of a rigid hierarchy, among people who have achieved success by exercising caution, while taking account of precedent and past practices?

“What we need are strong leaders,” suggests Nick West, chief strategy officer at British law firm Mishcon de Reya, which has offices in both London and New York. “That might be the managing partner, the partnership as a whole or a more technical leader, such as a chief financial officer (CFO) or CIO. Fundamentally, though, in a typical law firm, the partners own the business. They’re the people who have to decide if they want to change. That’s really at the heart of it.”

That doesn’t mean that dictatorship is an option, West adds. “If you really want change to happen it can’t just be pushed from the top, it has to be pulled from the bottom. Firms need to have a group of juniors who are willing. That’s especially true in terms of technologically driven change, where it’s often the juniors who do the work that is actually going to be affected by new technology.”

93% of law firm leaders think a focus on improved practice efficiency is a permanent trend in the legal market.
44% of law firm leaders state they have significantly changed their strategic approach to efficiency.  Source: Altman Weil (2016)

Inside track

West also emphasizes the importance of champions from the law firm community who are capable of influencing their colleagues from within.

“Lawyers are a breed,” he suggests. “Lawyers trust lawyers. There’s this whole ridiculous idea of there being lawyers and non-lawyers in firms. It’s probably the only industry in the entire world where people are defined by being a ‘non-something.’ You don’t have finance people and ‘nonfinance people,’ you just have people in different roles. In a law firm this idea of ‘non-lawyers’ is regularly spoken about - which is just utter nonsense.

“What it means, though, is that lawyers to some extent have a sort of arrogance about being a class above, and therefore there is this feeling that ideas have to be owned by lawyers. The question is, how do you achieve that?”

One of West’s strategies at Mishcon de Reya is to educate lawyers to be champions for change within their own departments. “I have lawyers working with me, which provides a sort of Trojan horse. The idea is that it’s not me going to a department with an idea, it’s that individuals can take ideas back to their department, and that way change is achieved more quickly.”

This idea of focusing on how and by whom a message is delivered is shared by Judith Flournoy, CIO at international law firm Kelley Drye & Warren.

“It’s important we socialize change through a combination of communication channels,” she says. “For example, this could be one-to-one conversations with senior stakeholders, aimed at getting the firm’s leadership on board. Also, sometimes I think it’s better to have the managing partner as the communications voice than for a message to come from my staff and me.

“It depends what the change is. Partners tend to listen to their partners in a way they don’t listen to others. And that’s OK. As a CIO I have to get beyond the idea that somehow people should listen to me. That’s not the point. The point is getting the message out. If the best channel of communication for the message is not the CIO but the managing partner then that’s the channel we should pursue.”

Generating buy-in

Flournoy also recommends establishing task forces or committees, generally numbering between six and 12 people, that deliver a genuine sense of participation in the decision-making process and can spread the word among the wider organization.

She adds: “If the firm’s looking at a major change, something that touches people’s everyday work, such as a document management system, then the broader and larger the composition of the group the better. In our case, that might be partners, associates, paralegals, admin staff, and firm leadership, depending on what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Such an approach was recently implemented when Kelley Drye & Warren introduced DUO—a product for two-factor identification. “We were hearing an ongoing commentary from our professionals about the difficulty they were finding using the previous system,” Flournoy recalls. “So our story to the community was this: ‘We’ve heard you. Here’s a better, easier way for you to use two-factor authentication.’

“We didn’t talk in those specific terms, we talked more about ways of securely accessing our systems remotely. We prepared people for that change and, when the rollout occurred, not only was everyone prepared for it, but they were very happy with it. That was due to a combination of us listening, understanding a particular area of frustration, and then addressing it with something that would be better.”

57% of law firm leaders have moderate or high concerns about their firm’s preparedness to make improvements to practice efficiency.  Source: Altman Weil (2016)

 

Speed of change

Law departments are now at what Flournoy terms “an inflection point,” where they are likely to have to accelerate their uptake of technological innovations to stay competitive.

West predicts a similar trend. Indeed, Mishcon de Reya already has its own “technology incubator,” where tech start-ups are invited to work on-site and share their innovative ideas with the firm’s lawyers.

He adds: “Ever since the financial crisis of ten years ago, CFOs have expected their in-house lawyers to manage their cost base like every other department in the organization, and that’s translated into pressure from clients onto law firms.

“Frankly, it’s about time. Those sorts of demands force law firms to think through their service delivery model and their production methods. We’re lawyers, we tend to talk in hallowed terms about what we do, but really the law is just like any other business that has customers who pay money and require a good service.

“Clients expect efficiency and they expect appropriate levels of people to do appropriate levels of work. Lots of questions that weren’t asked for years are now being asked. Things like: ‘Do you really need a human for that? Why can’t a machine do it?’”

West, for one, thinks such a situation is to be embraced. “It’s great. It pushes firms to innovate. Nobody ever decided to make hard decisions just for the sake of it, they did it because customers demanded they do it or because they could see a particular event coming.”

But to flourish in this brave new world, he adds, law firms must have a clear strategy and a focused commitment to delivering it.

“What’s needed is a defined understanding of what the business is all about. That and leaders who appreciate that technology is changing the world around us probably faster than at any other time in history. Yes, we’ve had massive changes in technology in the past 20 years, but the speed of change is now so quick that, if they are to stand a chance, firms need leaders who grasp what is needed while also figuring out ways to take their colleagues with them on the journey.”

 

 

Originally published by Litera Microsystems 2017.  To read the full publication click here. The Changing Lawyer document was created by Litera Microsystems and distributed in the Red Carpet Club - United Airlines over the 2017 Holidays. While it has no copyrights or publication information, all credit goes to Litera Microsystems . 

Strategic Management Executive Coaching