Leading change in your legal department

Patrick Johnson
JD Thomson Reuters Legal Tracker (formally Serengeti Law)

While the legal industry may be slower to adopt change than other industries, change has come to it nonetheless. The types and degree of change appear to be accelerating, leaving many both on the legal department side and law firm side scrambling to keep up. Many of the requirements of successfully leading a legal department through changes stay the same regardless of the type of transition taking place. Whether it's implementing billing guidelines with your firm, bringing more work in-house, managing the convergence of law firms, or implementing new software systems, the following items will help law department leaders guide their departments through these types of transformations.

Get others on board early

Springing something new on employees that's going to significantly change the way they work is probably going to land flat. Get key stakeholders involved early. Let them hear the options and make arguments why one option is better than another. Listen to their opinions. The general counsel or a chosen delegate will be the ultimate decision maker, but getting input from your team will do two things: 1) give you information and perspectives you may not already have, and 2) keep your team in the loop, let them know their opinions matter, and inform them as to why the ultimate decision was made. Team morale can take a hit if they are ordered to do something they don't understand or don't believe in, and you will need your team to reach the successful completion of a difficult project. It's not impossible to get a project done via the command and control route, it's just much (much) more difficult, and your team's motivation may suffer.

Explain why this project is happening and how it will benefit people

This goes beyond your key stakeholders to the entire department that you're leading. It's important to make your case to all those under your leadership as to why you're making a certain change. If you're implementing a new software system, for example, let them know that there will be work involved in the front end and processes may change, but in the end, the department will be able to cut expenses and save time for everyone as a result. If you can, give a forum for everyone to express concerns. Almost every employee has been through projects that they did not get on board with because it was clear that management didn't get how things worked “on the ground,” so this process should be a two-way communication to let your department know the rationale behind decisions and to get feedback as to how it will actually work once implemented.

Delegate it, time it, and measure it

A large project in a medium- to large-sized legal department is generally not owned by the general counsel. Responsibilities often need to be delegated to others within the department. Giving stakeholders ownership in completing a project incentivizes them to actively look for solutions for a project rather than be passive observers that do nothing but point out problems in the plan.

Keep momentum going by putting together a project management plan with responsibilities and deadlines. Momentum on a project can wane if folks feel like they can put off their part of the project.

Finally, letting your department know that this is priority project for the general counsel is important, but it's also important that the general counsel hold those with delegated tasks in the project accountable. This can be a part of a weekly or monthly team meeting where a group goes over the project plan and where everyone is with their part of the project (and calling out those that are behind). Adding these tasks to people's performance review can be an even better way to hold them accountable for the results of the project.

Celebrate wins

Leading staff through a large project can be a long journey. You're asking them to work harder, add extra duties to their role, and do so without complaints. If you want extraordinary effort from your department, you need to recognize those efforts. Team morale is tied to project momentum, and if your key employees feel that no one is noticing the effort they're putting in, then morale (and effort) will suffer. So look for small wins and milestones to celebrate the results and the effort it took to get those results.

About the author

Patrick Johnson is currently a Marketing Manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Tracker who writes and speaks on legal department management and technology. As a five-year veteran of Thomson Reuters, Pat previously served as an Account and Implementation Manager where he consulted a portfolio of more than 190 corporate law department clients on legal department management using Thomson Reuters' Legal Tracker matter management and e-billing system, as well as consulting clients on-site and conducting trainings and seminars nationwide on the best practices of the top legal departments worldwide. A graduate of University of Virginia School of Law, Pat served as a corporate M&A attorney for five years prior to joining Legal Tracker. Prior to law school, he worked as an IT consultant and financial analyst in California.