How Law Industry Leaders Can Lead Change—Now and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

Kevin Clem | June 30, 2020

Traditionally, the legal industry has been reluctant to implement change; after all, lawyers adhere to a case law system built on hundreds of years of case precedent. To say that the industry has been plagued by change gridlock is an understatement.

Fortunately, an urgency to transform has slowly started to build, as new entrants to the legal market and shifting client expectations have challenged law firms and law departments to rethink their business model. But the pace of change has been glacial—until the coronavirus arrived in the United States. The transition to remote work and social distancing initiatives have accelerated transformation; changes that ordinarily would have taken legal organizations a year or more to implement have occurred in weeks.

In the wake of COVID-19 and the strong currents of social transformation in the U.S., law firms and law departments that want to survive can no longer opt out of change. Few, if any, legal organizations had business continuity plans in place that accounted for the changes that have been required to manage the pandemic. As a result, lawyers must innovate daily to keep up with evolving client and personnel demands. Layoffs and furloughs mean that many law firms and law departments are allocating work in new ways. Cost reductions mean that lawyers and staff are working more for less compensation. And leaders must face these transitions while adapting to the “new normal” of working from home and managing personal stressors, such as trying to keep their family members safe, healthy, educated and entertained.


How Lawyers Are Experiencing the Change Journey

COVID-19 has ushered in an unprecedented series of changes that lawyers—and their clients—must respond to. And as soon as they decide on a response, the ground shifts again. Strategic plans are being rewritten and then revised again because of accelerated changes in priorities. For example, in a survey we conducted in April, legal leaders ranked people and talent as their top priority; costs were fifth. Now, those same leaders rank costs first, and people, while still a concern, have fallen to fourth.

As leaders move through the disruption foisted upon them by COVID-19, many are undergoing a personal and professional change journey that tracks the seven stages of the expanded Kubler-Ross change curve.

Consider the following list and determine which stage you are in:

  • Shock. Panicking and feeling paralyzed after hearing the news about the extent of the second wave of COVID-19
  • Denial. Becoming skeptical about the seriousness and scope of the pandemic or the need to allow or even require longer term remote work
  • Frustration. Resenting the new reality of losing opportunities to conduct in-person meetings and working from home under social distancing restrictions
  • Depression. Feeling low or lethargic because of stalled work, disengaged team members, and workforce reductions
  • Experiment. Discovering ways to operate more efficiently in the new market circumstances and considering creative approaches to deliver different types of value to clients
  • Decision. Committing to more innovative processes and strategies and feeling optimistic about the future of the organization
  • Integration. Adapting to the new normal and making client-based, value-focused innovation a part of business as usual

Before you can lead others through these stages, you must be aware of where you are in your personal change journey. Take stock of your emotions and your acceptance of change, and be patient with those who may be in a different stage. To help other leaders process changes in circumstances, share information and keep the lines of communication open. Remember that change is often uncomfortable, so, to the extent possible, keep an open mind as you wrestle with the discomfort.

Realize too that change is likely to be the norm for some time, so developing a level of comfort with the discomfort of change is a new muscle that we are having to develop and flex. You may also have to work through change fatigue; if that is the case, choose your top priorities, even if only thematically, and continue to refine them as transformations continue.

While some leaders may have become stuck in the frustration or depression stages, those who will best rebound after the pandemic are those who, regardless of their previous posture on change, are now reinventing their business model and service delivery. These innovators and early adopters are setting the stage for greater acceptance of change by those further behind on Everett Rogers’s diffusion of innovation curve: the early majority, late majority and laggards.

Given the stakes of the pandemic, those organizations with leaders who are most open to change—those closest in the curve to the pure innovators—are the most likely to thrive. Unfortunately, many legal leaders will not be motivated to change until they see that others have been successful in adapting to the new reality. And, by then, it may be too late.


Innovators and Early Adopters Are Finding Opportunities Amid the Threat of COVID-19

The law firms and law departments that are on the leading edge of change during this crisis are those that are agile. They have released traditional notions of law practice and are using the pandemic as an opportunity to construct new models for delivering legal services. These organizations have transitioned from in-person to remote work in a week’s time, have learned how to onboard employees remotely and have created new policies and processes on the fly. The most agile law firms are leaning into the fact that offering creative solutions for service delivery and innovative fee arrangements are two of the top five reasons driving corporate law departments’ choice of outside counsel.

For law firm leaders, as you consider where to focus your change efforts, consider your organization’s unique value proposition. Your guiding question is simple: what do your clients care about most? For example, while the quality of a law firm’s IT function will not bring new clients to the table, using technology to meet clients’ changing needs as they struggle to manage through the pandemic will. Discuss with your team and your clients how you can help them meet their goals. Is now the time to make the move to a new fee model, staffing structure or workflow or process automation? Should you pursue a digital strategy that transforms your approach to client work? As you develop these solutions, evaluate whether you can scale them across your client roster.

For law department leaders, focus your efforts on changes that will advance your department on the path to a “law department of the future.” Does your department have an agile structure and culture that lends itself to support changing dynamics? Is your department “value-centric,” i.e., is it focused on the highest value work, as demonstrated through metrics and data? Does your department leverage technology, such as data and analytics or knowledge management, to maximize its efficiency? These are three attributes of the law department of the future that can guide your change initiatives.

Be mindful that the most prudent organizations are not blindly grasping for change. They are following a systematic process that improves the chances that any change they implement will be sustainable in the future. Following Kotter’s eight-step model for leading change, here is how legal organizations can springboard from the COVID-19 pandemic and emerge as innovators poised to move forward into a new reality.

  1. Foster urgency. If the current situation has not yet induced fear of what the future will hold should your organization fail to pivot and differentiate itself, nothing will. Emphasize not only the reasoning behind your actions but also the benefits—for both the organization and individual lawyers—of taking decisive steps. Use qualitative and quantitative data to build your business case.
  2. Set the tone from the top. Leaders must believe in the potential positive results from change to guide it successfully. They must be empowered to take action and be willing to frequently and enthusiastically voice their support for the change, thereby securing additional sponsors from across the organization. And their support must be more than mere words: they need to walk the talk.
  3. Be strategic and tactical. Set a vision for how the organization will operate in the future, and support that vision with actionable initiatives and measurable goals.
  4. Build a coalition. Representatives from every department and practice group should participate in the change initiative. Setup a team or committee charged with taking actions to champion change and move initiatives forward, and hold them accountable for making progress. The more people who support the change throughout the organization, the easier it will be for people to buy in.
  5. Remove roadblocks. Identify inefficiencies that interfere with your goals, such as departmental silos, and work to eliminate them. Provide a way that everyone in the organization can share feedback to continue gathering ideas for new approaches.
  6. Build momentum with quick wins. Set checkpoints for measuring your progress. Celebrate small victories to keep your team engaged.
  7. Continue to accelerate. Let the momentum of each victory propel you forward and continue to seek creative new ways to offer better service to your clients.
  8. Integrate the change. To be sustainable, the change must become part of the fabric of the organization. Reinforce the importance of change and emphasize the value these improvements have returned for your clients, lawyers and other staff.


Continuing the Process and Momentum of Change Into the Future

The coronavirus has been a wake-up call for the legal industry and an accelerant for change, pushing us toward the future. Given this momentum, law departments and law firms cannot afford to revert to their old ways of doing things or be lulled back into complacency when the emergency subsides—and the changes they make must be sustainable. If organizations fail to adopt dynamic processes that afford flexibility, set in motion processes to continually analyze their efficacy and establish a culture that supports change and discomfort through that change, they will plunge back to the beginning of the change curve the next time a crisis inevitably arises.

Even after the pandemic abates, change is not going to stop for the legal industry. Legal leaders should use our current health, social and economic transformations to serve as a playbook—not just for emergent circumstances but for making the most of our new normal as well. It is essential to maintain our focus on the core elements of our business and to develop a value-driven, customer-centric mindset. And, most importantly, we should recognize the value of sustaining the current momentum, energy, focus, motivation and passion we are feeling now in our day-to-day work and through future periods of change.

To discuss your legal organization’s change journey, please contact me or another member of HBR’s team.