By Dave Kuhlman

Most people who work in, with, or for a law firm will acknowledge—perhaps only in their more morbid thoughts—how hard it is to drive strategic change in a big law firm.  Those of us who work both with lawyers and other professionals like accountants and consultants will tell you what you probably most fear: yes, it’s different and yes, it’s harder at a law firm.

I actually think that although the psychological makeup of lawyers—skeptical, autonomy-seeking,  adversarial—plays a role, the bigger challenge comes from the very nature of the profession and the training given to its practitioners. I believe that the challenges to making change within a law firm come from three things:

  1. The adversarial nature of the law: In effect, in the purest sense, lawyers are trained to advocate. By definition, the winning argument is, well, the winning argument.  Every lawyer owes their client the most vigorous representation of their case possible.  Unlike the accountants, who seek a materially accurate representation of the situation, or the consultants who are often seeking the root causes and solutions, the lawyer is trained for a world where two sides make an argument and one side wins or there’s a compromise.  At its heart, this process is totally agnostic to “finding the truth” or “examining all the options.”  Faced with a strategic choice, lawyers will tend to muster arguments, only sometimes on both sides but more often for what is comfortable or known.  May the best arguer win.
  2. Stare decisis:If laws and courts are the engine of the lawyer’s life, stare decisis is the fuel that runs it.  While the doctrine creates a stable, resilient, largely rational legal system, it is often the death-knell for strategic change.  In a world where precedent is strength, solutions that vary from standard practice are automatically suspect and heaven help us if an idea is wholly new and without precedent.
  3. Distinguishing Adverse Precedent:In an adversarial, precedent-driven world, separating the precedents you like from the precedents you don’t is key.  Lawyers are trained to focus on why the latter doesn’t apply—to distinguish the adverse precedent from the situation at hand.  While this is a survival skill to the practicing lawyer, to a firm leader trying to make change, it is the pyromaniac stepchild of stare decisis.  Faced with the discomforting challenge to change, a lawyer will tend to listen to the arguments, all the while toting up reasons why the arguments don’t apply.

So if you’re a leader in a firm, what do you do?  While at some level the real answer is “the best you can” since you’re pulling against lawyer-DNA, here are a few ideas:

  • Specifically ask for an open mind:Acknowledge the tendencies outlined above and frame the discussion as more of a search for the best answer than as a debate or defense.
  • Deliberately position individuals to argue both sides:Lay out your case and then explicitly ask for the downsides or counter arguments.  Then ask the group to discuss the consequences of not acting, marshaling the same skills on the other side of the argument.  The point is to get the group to debate with itself rather than with you.
  • Over-specify the business case:While you shouldn’t try your partners’ patience or pad the argument, if you have five great reasons for change, don’t bother to cut it to three in order to be efficient. A preponderance of facts often builds an overwhelming picture of the need to change.

Manage the centers of power: All partners aren’t created equal and while many of the mechanics of managing change should be all-inclusive, where you put your energy shouldn’t be.  When it comes to the most senior partners of the firm:

  • Enlist supporters to increase the commitment of others.
  • Give loyal soldiers the information they need to follow more thoughtfully.
  • Your time is best spent with the quiet and the neutral.
  • Be clear and firm with passive resistors and detractors.
  • Be ruthless with saboteurs. Free up your time and do others a favor.

The joy and challenge of getting lawyers to change is wrapped up in their unique character.  In many ways, the intellectual horsepower and precision that legal training and partner selection engenders is an invaluable asset.  On the other hand, a little bit of creativity—and sometimes patience—is key to getting the rest of the partnership to apply those strengths coherently to move their firm forward.

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