Guest post: Embedding change into your law firm’s DNA

As Heraclitus once said: ‘The only constant in life is change.’

By Margo Trebicka, customer success director at Della. With quotes from Isabel Parker, Nick West and Tomasz Prus.

Change remains something many of us fear, especially in business. According to Gartner, a typical organisation undertakes one to two major firm-wide organisational or cultural changes in a year. The most successful organisations manage that change effectively, collaboratively and with an open mind. So, if 70% of change related initiatives fail, and change is as pervasive as Heraclitus and Gartner suggest, wouldn’t it make sense to try to find a good way of managing it and, in time, overcome our fear of it?

The dangers of over planning

Change management is a process of cultural, structural or technological transformation in an organisation, which ensures continuous success of a firm by ensuring it stays competitive. Yet law firms, in particular, have so far managed to avoid adopting many of the changes many other industries, such as the finance sector, have made. Most industries have successfully embedded change into their DNA, so why should law firms be any different?

According to the SRA Report law firms typically spend months, even years planning a major change in one of their processes. They spend a long time deciding which tools to select, and even longer trying to embed those tools in their work processes. I believe that this is a mistake, let me tell you why.

Over planning can lead to the creation of doubt, in this case calling into question whether change is needed in the first place. Isabel Parker, executive director at the digital legal exchange and author of ‘Successful Digital Transformation in Law firms: A Question of Culture’ suggests that a “strategy should evolve, allowing an organisation to pivot in response to unforeseen events, and an overarching plan, is essential. Like a complex jigsaw with many pieces, it is easier and quicker to complete if you plan how to put the pieces together (start with the corners, build the edges) rather than picking up random pieces and discarding them if they don’t fit.”

Cutting the amount of time you spend planning doesn’t mean neglecting it entirely, it means doing it diligently, and more efficiently. Any strategy or plan needs a vision. But that vision or direction needs to clearly define how the change will be achieved and what the end result is likely to be. Your vision will also form the basis of your internal and external communications, so it is worth investing the time in getting it right.

Involve the right people in the process

The process of selecting and testing legal tech tools is typically conducted by innovation teams and legal technologists. Fee-earners are frequently excluded, but choice or design, from this equation. In my experience, this is a mistake. Ultimately, a firm’s fee-earners will become its chosen technology’s end users. After all, the goal of any legal technology is to solve legal problems and improve legal processes for people and businesses.

The benefits of including lawyers in the planning and decision-making stages of any change programme when it might mean adopting legal technology, means that they are bought into any change and are exposed to and can test the technology as early in the process as possible. If lawyers are involved from the outset, it means they can prepare adequately for a smooth transition into a new way of working. This is crucial because down the line, if lawyers are involved in the pilot stage of new technology and are actively involved in the final decision, they are going to be more receptive to adopting the technology on a daily basis. It’s a no brainer when you think about it.

Nick West, chief strategy officer at Mishcon de Reya, says: “At Mishcon, this approach is central to how we operate – we absolutely insist on lawyer involvement from day one. No commitment from the lawyers = no time spent by our team. If no lawyers are prepared to commit time to the project, it drops down the priority list until the right people can spend the time with us.”

Communication is key

Change, particularly for those who typically avoid it, needs to be approached sympathetically and communicated clearly. Interestingly, you might think that ‘clear communication’ equates to a single company-wide announcement or a lengthy speech delivered by a team leader, but this isn’t often the case. If senior executives appear to dismiss any change, their actions will speak louder than any newsletter ever could.

The key is to bring the people who are most likely to object to a change into the conversation early. This gradual exposure significantly increases the chances of them accepting, responding to and being open to any change or adopting a new way of working. It also decreases the chances of them immediately rejecting a proposed change due to a lack of prior warning. Bringing in people early also means they can become supporters and evangelists for your project.

This is exactly what Tomasz Prus, executive manager, best delivery advisor at Clifford Chance suggests. Tomasz adds: “When implementing any new legal tech tool, it is very important to build a group of enthusiasts, who are keen to get involved in the change process. Such people are much more effective than someone from the outside at convincing their teammates to take advantage of the new technology.”

But how do you actually do it? Tomasz and his team start by “creating the right environment e.g., organising workshops, during which lawyers could share their experiences.”

Nick West at Mishcon de Reya adds that “in the best case scenario, lawyers are seconded to our team, or are given meaningful chargeable time reductions, to be able to spend the necessary time on a project.”

Isabel Parker reminds us of another important consideration: “for those operating in the law firm innovation world, it is easy to forget that the lawyers in the firm probably know nothing about the firm’s digital transformation, and are too busy to invest time in learning about it. So constant education and communication is a significant part of the remit of the team leading digital change.”

We need to be realistic about ROI

As a final point, it is important for anyone who is considering whether to implement a change in their firm sets achievable and realistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations can significantly undermine any change related initiative. It’s not unusual for productivity or ROI to drop short-term, then rise as time goes on. In the case of legal technology, that doesn’t mean it is a poor implementation. In fact the opposite could also be true. Meeting a goal confirms expectations, reassures impacted stakeholders and further establishes confidence in the success of the change process. So understanding ROI and determining how you can measure it should always be taken into account in the decision-making phase of any change..

Parker adds: “Words matter to lawyers, so the messaging must be crisp and clear, and the end goals tangible. It should paint a picture of what a ‘transformed’, digitally effective firm will look like for the firm’s people and, most importantly, its clients.”

There is a clear gap between lawyers’ actual needs combined with their technological skills and many legal technologists’ vision. As a result, selecting the right legal technology is a challenge.

In order to bridge the gap in needs and vision, it is vital to:

  • Understand lawyers’ requirements first

  • Involve a small group of lawyers in the pilot stage

  • Select tools based on business fit

  • Implement technology by taking small, continuous steps

  • Show ROI to demonstrate clear financial gain

  • Communicate frequently using simple terms

  • Set the right expectations

It’s no secret that lawyers are risk averse – they have to be – it’s their job to minimise risk for their clients. It is often implied that any amount of change carries a fair amount of risk, so expectedly change management has to be handled gently and slowly to allow lawyers to adapt.

The key takeaway here is change is possible, but it needs to be managed correctly. The process of managing change needs to be as continuous as any change is. Communication is key and any project needs support and the space to thrive. Rather than going with the ‘big bang’ approach overnight, firms need to employ a strategy that focuses on embedding change into the DNA of their law firm.

Margo Trebicka is customer success director at contract review solution Della. Before Della, she was global customer success manager at Kira Systems, and prior to that she was a strategic account manager at Gartner. She has a law degree from Kingston University, and a Master of Laws in EU competition law from Queen Mary University of London.