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North Star consulting: team facilitation, leadership events, crisis communication, communication strategy and performance coaching North Star consulting: team facilitation, leadership events, crisis communication, communication strategy and performance coaching

Driving change in a law firm

What we’ve learned about getting it right

Introduction

North Star has substantial experience of driving change in major partnerships generally and in law firms specifically. Our experience has taught us that the levers of change in law firms are substantially different, not simply from other types of organisation but also from other professional service partnerships. We have distilled this experience into a summary of points to help clients drive change successfully in a partnership environment:

Consult widely

In most professional service partnerships there exists a defined executive decision-making group, (the ‘explicit’ decision makers) with a slightly wider group of influencers (the ‘implicit’ decision makers) around that. This is not dissimilar from the executive board and senior management team in a typical corporate structure, and it is this group on which we focus the involvement and consultation process that is an essential precursor to change.

Our experience, however, is that law firms require a far higher level of consultation and involvement from the entire partnership community – or at least from the wider ‘implicit’ decision makers. This consultation not only ensures that the project begins and proceeds with conviction, it also ensures that its outputs have the active buy-in of all partners, which is essential to embedding change.

This means that we have learned to build in a higher level of consultation and engagement at the very beginning of any major change process, where inputs are sought from this wider community. To succeed, this engagement needs to be a meaningful (ie with substantive outputs) and structured component of the process.

For you, this means you need to provide the time and (if you are working with external advisors) budget to provide for this often significant initial activity, whilst ensuring that it is structured to add real value.

Choose a senior team

Typically a consultancy team on a major client project is made up of one or two very senior ‘lead consultants’ with a team of less senior consultants supporting them both in front of the client and behind the scenes. Our experience has taught us, however, that in order to build trust and exercise influence with lawyers, we have needed to present a much more senior team made up entirely of very experienced senior consultants and directors.

For you, this means you need to ensure not only that your advisors have assembled a team of this depth, but also that they have truly committed to the level of detailed involvement from their senior team that this way of working demands.

Select an ‘advance party’

It is unusual for the existing senior decision-making body in a law firm to contain the mix of skills and experience needed to confidently drive organisational change, not least because of the right functional expertise may not be represented at this level. Equally, it is unusual for law firms to have an established ‘protocol’ for approaching the kind of organisational or behavioural change that many are now contemplating. This means that the ‘executive group’ or ‘managing group’ at the top of the firm may be ill-equipped to directly lead you through change, yet there will rarely be any other pre-existing body with sufficient credibility and influence to deliver what’s needed.

If you suspect this is so, you may best proceed by creating an ‘advance party’ of senior people to support and guide you through change. This group is created specifically for the change project and its purpose is to consider and navigate the way ahead, to make assessments and recommendations and to manage the project. The make-up of this advance party will depend on your needs, but should probably include your senior partner, most senior HR or marketing (or both) executives, and at least one partner chosen for his ability to be a ‘catalyst for change’ within the group. In our experience, this group is also our main point of contact and forms a very strong bond with the team from MCA Communicates.

Establish decision-making protocols

Our experience suggests that many of the changes now being contemplated by law firms do not fit well with their existing decision-making processes. Either decisions are made by the whole partner community (which may bog you down in endless debate) or by only a senior team (which does not encourage the ownership and buy-in that is essential to sustainable change).

This challenge is compounded by the particular nature of some of the debating process in many law firms. Our experience suggests that the debate shifts frequently between very big picture (“Why are we doing this?”) and very fine detail (“Exactly how does this little bit work?”). This two-dimensional debate places particular demand on the consultation process and makes it important that you can judge accurately the difference between discussion as a decision-making tool and filibuster as a barrier to change.

The ideal way to proceed with confidence is for your ‘advance party’ to generate at each stage not a decision but a single ‘proposition’. This proposition is then presented to your partner community and discussed in a facilitated forum with the remit only to accept or reject the proposition. If accepted, the advance party proceeds to implementation; if rejected the advance party regroups and presents an alternative proposition for acceptance or rejection. This process is repeated as necessary although our experience suggests that good consultation minimises the number of rejected propositions.

This helps you avoid those ‘let’s just debate all this again’ barriers whilst avoiding any tendency to railroad decisions or impose them inappropriately.

Conclusions

Everyone knows law firms are unique. What is less well understood, however, are the dynamics of change in law firms who have not previously contemplated many of the changes they are now embarking on. We have learned enough to understand some of these dynamics, and also enough to know there are plenty more yet to get to grips with.

 
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