Overcoming lawyers' resistance to change

The image of the lawyer as a Luddite, rather than an early adopter, persists. While it is relatively universal to be resistant to change, the legal profession has been particularly resistant. The economic distress of the past decade, combined with the rise of new technologies and a generation of millennial lawyers who grew up using technology, are transforming the practice of law. We’ll explore lawyers’ resistance to embrace change and innovation, and highlight why lawyers must adapt, or risk being left behind.

The legal market has undergone fundamental and permanent changes since the global economic meltdown of 2008. From the influx of millennials into the workplace to the use of artificial intelligence, legal process outsourcers and alternative providers, new market drivers are shaping the legal profession and forcing change.

Such dramatic shifts can be disorienting, yet the benefits of effective change management can’t be overstated. With change comes tremendous opportunities for corporate legal departments. Being adaptable allows legal departments to move more swiftly to better support business needs. With so much at stake, why aren’t more lawyers at the forefront of technology and innovation?

One underlying reason may be the legal profession’s focus on precedent. The very nature of the practice of law, and the U.S. legal system as a whole, largely rests on guidance from previous case law or interpretation of legislative intent. Additionally, the practice of law is inherently risk averse; lawyers are known for writing long memos that issue warnings of what might potentially go wrong, and transactional attorneys often draft from precedent, rather than creating documents from scratch.

Another factor is the legal education system, which hasn’t evolved in decades, despite declining law school enrollment and more limited job prospects. Technology and the business side of law are overlooked; law schools continue to emphasize litigation and the Socratic method of instruction, instead of the competencies lawyers need to be successful in this changing environment, such as skills in data analysis, coding, statistics and marketing.

The cautious approach to changing legal education underscores the nature of the practice of law, which may draw people with certain traits or tendencies. A traditionally risk-averse profession may attract those who are more linear in their thinking and process-oriented. It may also appeal to people who like finding a solution that’s undoubtedly right.

Research from psychology suggests there may be a reason behind lawyers’ resistance to change: Many may have a fixed mindset, instead of a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset is the belief that one’s success is based more on inherent intelligence than on effort. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, people with this mindset work toward “performance goals,” a focus on looking smart even if there’s no learning in the process. She explained in Stanford Magazine, “For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine – and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor.”

This fosters a fear of failure, and in turn, reluctance to go outside of one’s comfort zone. For lawyers, this outlook was reinforced, early on, by a school system that praised intelligence and discouraged risk-taking. It continues with the culture in law firms and legal departments. If tech startups represent one end of the culture spectrum, characterized by a “fail fast, learn faster” environment, the practice of law is on the opposite end, with lawyers unwilling to experiment with different ways to find the right answer.

One notable exception may be in Silicon Valley, where “fail fast, learn faster” looms large; the emergence and influence of legal department operations teams here are finding new ways for lawyers – both in-house and the law firms they hire – to function more efficiently. A legal department ops professional – a proxy for innovation – is also charged with deploying the innovation.

With their change leadership skills, legal department ops professionals may be among those with a growth mindset – the belief that personality traits are malleable, as opposed to a fixed mindset, which holds that personality traits don’t change. Dweck explained, “People with learning goals have a growth mind-set about intelligence, believing it can be developed.” With a growth mindset, one can learn more throughout life, so taking risks and even failing are simply part of the journey.

Applying this approach to the practice of law can help lawyers with managing organizational change and better handling setbacks. Harvard Business Review noted, “People with growth mindsets (incremental theorists) see outcomes not as evidence of who they are but as evidence of what they could improve upon in the future and what challenges they could overcome.”

For example, consider an in-house team that utilized an alternative fee arrangement that didn’t perform as intended. If team members adopt a growth mindset, they realize the takeaway isn’t that all AFAs fail, and tackle it as a setback to overcome. They could revisit how to price their work, using coding or historical data-driven processes, to improve their fee arrangements for future projects; the in-house team, along with the outside counsel, could use the experience as an opportunity to refine and strengthen their relationship, rather than treating it as a reason to abandon AFAs.

There’s no shortage of challenges in managing change and ways to improve, given the rapid transformation of the legal space. In-house counsel who become more growth-minded will view these challenges as opportunities, and their resilience will better position them to help themselves, and in turn, their business partners.

Shifting to a growth mindset can help corporate counsel manage change in the workplace and achieve success in several ways. The biggest may be to use change to better drive efficiencies. Be first to adapt to new market drivers, whether it’s AFAs, technology or the use of alternative service providers. Being willing to go overseas to set up the legal department in a new foreign office is an example of how simply “being first” can be advantageous.

Being first is also a way to support business partners who are trying new approaches. When corporate counsel get out of their comfort zones and experiment with different ways to find solutions, they reinforce an in-house team’s commitment to its business partners and foster loyalty.

Finally, too many lawyers operate under the motto, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Just because a business model worked in the past does not mean it will continue to fare well. Avoid being blindsided by acknowledging the changes in the legal space, and being aware of how developing trends impact business partners. Help business partners tackle their problems by embracing a growth mindset to approach these as challenges to overcome.

Change is inevitable. In the legal space, the pace of change has been accelerated by the economic downturn and a surge in new technologies. These changes are significant and they’re permanent. Attorneys who adapt and are proactive – using a growth mindset – can turn changing market drivers into opportunities. Lawyers who are reactive, and maintain a fixed mindset, will be left behind. In a traditionally risk-averse profession, lawyers who don’t adapt to change are making the riskiest move of all.