The legal profession has seen significant change since the economic collapse of 2008, and the practice of law will continue evolving for the foreseeable future. It’s impossible to predict precisely how emerging technologies and millennial practitioners will shape the legal market, but it’s clear that effective change management will be essential for corporate legal department teams navigating these sizeable shifts.
Change management is part project management, part social art. It’s one thing to make a change, and it’s another to convince people to change – especially lawyers in the traditionally change-averse legal profession. Corporate counsel may be reluctant to disrupt the status quo, but driving organizational change and implementing legal workflow tools are among the moves in-house leaders must be willing to make. This series will introduce corporate counsel to change management strategy and explore how legal departments can use it to fully embrace change.
Handling the human side of the change process is as crucial as determining an overall change management strategy. Regardless of the scope and magnitude of a legal department’s change initiative, successfully managing change in the workplace begins with people. For in-house teams attempting to lead changes, big or small, consider these best practices.
- Start at the top. Leadership buy-in is essential. Leaders must genuinely understand the need for change, be committed to making it happen, and act as a united front in aligning others. They need to provide active sponsorship to drive awareness of the department’s need for change. Sometimes, general counsel will act as the leaders who model change to, in turn, motivate others to embrace it. Other times, the general counsel role will involve convincing other department leaders to buy in to change.
- Create ownership at every layer. With the general counsel and other leaders on board, the next level of ownership comes deeper in the organization from those who are closer to the changes. Give individuals responsibility for making change happen, and foster ownership by involving them in identifying problems and finding solutions. The leaders who report directly to the general counsel play a key role in change management plans because they help translate the vision for change to those who are being asked to be part of new processes and take on different roles and responsibilities. Again, the general counsel will sometimes directly lead the change, and other times, the authority will be delegated and he or she will be responsible for persuading others to change.
- Communicate early and often. Reinforce the changes being made with continual messaging that ties back to why the transformation is necessary. Acknowledge that change affects different stakeholders in different ways – from the general counsel considering the financial aspects to junior lawyers concentrating on new ways of working – while focusing on the department’s strategic goals. Balance showing each stakeholder, “What’s in it for me?” with uniting around the common objectives.
- Understand the culture and work with it. With the focus on precedent central to the practice of law, lawyers – both outside counsel and corporate counsel – are inherently averse to change. Forcing change on a legal department steeped in doing what’s been done before won’t come easily, but acknowledging the culture surrounding the practice of law and candidly addressing it – along with related behaviors – helps successfully drive organizational change. For example, growing ranks of legal departments are effectively managing change in Silicon Valley. In a region where innovation is part of the cultural DNA, legal department operations professionals are becoming more prevalent as they drive change and efficiencies for in-house teams.
- Deal with people who won’t change. There will always be people who refuse to change, and working with them to understand their resistance to change is key to overcoming it. They may have reasonable objections that can be worked through and addressed, or it may be a matter of helping them better understand specifically why the changes are necessary and what they will mean for individuals’ roles and responsibilities. Unfortunately, people unwilling to change may encounter a harsh reality: the legal department may no longer be the place for them.
Getting comfortable with discomfort
Being uncomfortable with change is a universal experience, and change management is particularly daunting in the legal profession, where lawyers are known for their resistance to change and innovation. But lawyers can’t stick with the status quo as the practice of law continues to evolve. To handle the shifts in the current legal market and better anticipate the changes on the horizon, in-house teams must overcome the obstacles to embracing change. Partnering with change management professionals to make the most of their experience and expertise will help in-house teams not only survive, but thrive, as the transformation of the practice of law continues.