Read the full article in the July/August issue of Legal Management magazine.
Change doesn’t have to be tiresome or scary when it’s done right.
Legal organizations and innovation are not typically linked. Firms in particular tend to follow a traditional mode and may not be open to change. Change often means following the path of least resistance — it’s easier but not always the most fruitful choice. After the turbulent last two-plus years, normalcy and status quo can seem comforting.
However, switching up how they operate can be exactly the thing that propels legal organizations forward, impresses their clients and contributes to their overall success.
When you can change according to the times, you’re going to be well prepared to assist your clients and provide outstanding service.
“Organizational change at law firms is critical for one reason: to better serve clients,” says John Joy, a Managing Partner at FTI Law in New York. “In order for firms to offer the same level as service as clients have come to expect in other service industries, it is critical that law firms embrace change.”
Richard J. Brandenstein, an attorney and Partner at Fusco, Brandenstein & Rada, P.C., agrees whole-heartedly. “Change in a law firm is necessary to ensure we are keeping up with the correct practices and are doing everything correctly and within the law,” he says . “Change is inevitable, and it’s what allows your business to grow and evolve.”
While change is crucial, it’s not always easy to implement. Given the rapid change everyone has experienced since 2020 in both their personal and professional lives, more changes can be a hard sell. Change fatigue is setting in.
“In over 25 years of managing law firms, I have yet to have an employee, attorney or staff [member] who likes change,” says Missy Hirst, MSLA, Chief Operating Officer at Altitude Community Law; she is also a member of the Mile High Chapter. “Change is hard. Change is unpleasant. Change is scary. Change is daunting. I get it.”
Additionally, Hirst notes it can be an isolated road to travel.
“It can be lonely because we may be the only person in our workplace that sees the need for the change,” she says. “It can be long because buy-in from the top, consensus-building from the bottom up, budgeting negotiations and logistical planning take time. And it can be thankless because humans are busy marching forward and rarely look back to reflect on — and be thankful for — a beneficial change [that] was made.”
Here are some tips on implementing change in meaningful, effective ways at your firm without encouraging fatigue.
COMMUNICATE THE IMPORTANCE OF CHANGE
Partners need to buy into the change and work hand in hand with the administrators to move plans forward.
“Regardless of their stated title, legal management professionals oftentimes are in the position of being a change agent for their firm or organization, and this is typically understood to be part of the ‘other duties as assigned’ section of our job description,” says Hirst. “The reality is, we don’t have time for it in addition to the scope of our day-to-day responsibilities, so we have to make time for it in order to make change happen.”
When partners and administrators work together, they should involve everyone at the firm in their plans to be transparent.
“The best way to communicate the importance of change to employees is to be open and honest about changes,” says Brandenstein. “You want to explain why the changes are necessary, and then focus on how they will help improve the colleagues’ workday when they get used to these changes.”
Over at Farris, Riley & Pitt, LLP, attorney Anastasia Allmon Riley says her firm holds forums “to discuss the changes and [the] importance of them so that no one thinks that we’re making these changes on a whim or for no reason. We start with a forum and then follow up with an email that highlights the importance of these changes and the timeline that we’ll be implementing them.”
PAINT THE BIG PICTURE
The law firm’s stakeholders may tend to get caught up in their day-to-day tasks. They need to take a moment, step back and see how the changes they’re implementing play into the bigger picture.
“Change fatigue happens when you feel as though you’re going nowhere, can’t get things off the ground or misidentify pushback as being insurmountable,” says Hirst. “None of that is usually true.”
Over the years, Hirst has made a number of changes by seeing the bigger picture and, together with her firm, deciding where they wanted to be a year from now, five years from now, etc.
“We never contemplate change just for change’s sake — there’s a reason, and usually a long-term reason, why the change is identified as being necessary now,” she says.
DON’T MIX UP TOO MANY THINGS AT ONCE
One change after another can lead to change fatigue. Instead of bombarding the firm, space out the changes.
“If there have been a lot of changes in a short space of time within a law firm, this is when change fatigue tends to sink in,” says Brandenstein. “It happens because employees are struggling to keep up with new processes, especially if there are a number of processes they need to alter and adjust in a short space of time.”
Allmon Riley echoes this sentiment: “Try not to change too much too often. If you need to implement changes, then you need to create a timeline for this instead of just overhauling things so that your employees can gradually adjust to the change.”
Brandenstein suggests focusing on the most important changes first and working from there. “Once the significant changes have been made, and colleagues are comfortable with these changes, then you can implement smaller changes,” he says.
CELEBRATE YOUR SUCCESSES
Trudging along and making change after change without stopping to reflect on your success will also lead to fatigue. Instead, make sure you take the time to celebrate when you are successful.
“Recognize the impact you have had as a change agent,” says Hirst. “Job. Well. Done. You came, you saw, you spoke, you challenged, you planned, you executed. Change happened, and it was good. You are better than good; you are impactful. Own it!”