Is Your Law Department Experiencing Change Gridlock?

Kevin Clem | September 16, 2019

Nothing ever stays the same, which means organizations that do not actively and correctly manage change may find themselves creeping downhill, gradually accelerating as the pace of transformation around them picks up. Fortunately, law departments have recognized that change management is a critical success factor in the face of increasing cost pressures. They are hard at work on change — but are they focused on the right areas to reap the greatest rewards from that change?

Contemplating these questions reminded me of a session from ACCXchange’s mid-year meeting earlier this year, “Change is Constant – Here’s What You Can Do to Lead Change.” During that session, we surveyed the audience to find out how their law departments are dealing with change and how successful their efforts have been. Here is what we found and what we recommend as a result.


People Are Conflicted About Organizational Change

As individuals, people believe they are optimistic about change. Twenty percent of our respondents reported that they “enthusiastically embrace” change, while another 62 percent said they “generally enjoy” change. No one confessed to “absolutely abhorring” change for themselves.

When we asked about organizations, though, the picture was different. Nearly the same combined percentage reported that their departments either “reluctantly endure” change (76 percent) or “absolutely abhor” it (seven percent). Only two percent — a single respondent — claimed that their department enthusiastically embraced change. Despite that skepticism, law departments are forging ahead with change: a total of 79 percent of our respondents reported that their law department implemented “significant change” either “sometimes” or “often.”

What was most interesting, though, were the reasons that people reported experiencing “change gridlock” in their department. The top answer, with 29 percent, was the difficulty in “driving individual team members out of their comfort zones,” closely followed by “change fatigue” with 20 percent. These observations fly in the face of what individuals believe about their own openness to change, indicating an unrecognized conflict. Another 20 percent pointed to “limited resources, bandwidth or know-how” in implementing changes, while 15 percent found difficulty in “gaining legal leadership and key stakeholder buy-in.”


Process Changes Are Lagging Behind

The majority of our participants perceived that their law departments were at an “intermediate” maturity level when it came to changes related to people (57 percent), technology (60 percent) and processes (63 percent). We saw the lowest level of “advanced” maturity in process-related change, with only five percent of respondents confident that their departments had mastered their processes.

As for which categories of the law department presented the most difficulty in implementing change, the top answers were strategic planning and resource management, including technology management and knowledge management.


Practical Tips to More Effectively Steer Organizational Change

Given these ambivalent results, how can you better align people’s beliefs about change with their day-to-day actions in support of change? Here are our top five recommendations.

  1. Inspire individuals to believe in organizational change. People want to see themselves as dynamic and growth-oriented, but they don’t trust that others feel the same way. Align your team by clearly explaining why you are implementing the new approach and focusing on what people are truly invested in: “What is in it for me?”
  2. Start at the top. If leadership is verbalizing its support for change while carrying on doing things in the old way, your change initiative is doomed to fail. Ensure that your leaders embrace your new direction in word and deed before you ask the rank and file to get on board.
  3. Find the right people to lead change — and empower them to take action. Even with leadership on board, you need a visible contingent driving change throughout the department. Designate a champion for your change initiative and surround that person with a core team that has the authority to take decisive action.
  4. It’s not just what you are doing but how you are doing it. Don’t leave processes as an afterthought. Communicate early and often to reinforce and model the change, and provide a feedback mechanism so that everyone in the department can be involved in gathering ideas and refining the process.
  5. Keep track of your progress and celebrate small wins. Establish metrics for success so you can monitor your progress at pre-defined checkpoints. While it is natural to focus on the major milestones you’ve established for your department, keep people inspired and engaged by celebrating the everyday victories along the way. Find ways to demonstrate your appreciation for people who get behind the new approach so that they’re motivated to keep going.

HBR has developed a maturity index that helps law departments calibrate their department’s relative maturity and identify opportunities for advancement. We have also assisted numerous law departments as they implement a variety of changes related to their maturation – from technology implementations to entire department restructuring. Please feel free to contact me to learn more about the maturity index or if we can assist you with any changes your department is considering.