Fear of change

Issue April 2003 By Joseph P.J. Vrabel

Why are we so afraid of change?

We live in an era of constant change, where every day brings something new for us to think about: major proposed changes to the structure of state government and to the state budget - changes that will result in significant cuts to legal aid services, to local aid for cities and towns, and to education and educational institutions; major proposed restructuring efforts to our court system, both as the result of new budget initiatives and possibly as the result of the SJC Visiting Committee's recommendations; and, above all, the prospect of a seriously deteriorating national economy, coupled with the very real possibility of war.

Whew. That's a lot to swallow, particularly those aspects of change that affect us directly as citizens of Massachusetts and as practicing attorneys. But change will always be a necessary part of our lives, both personally and professionally, and to react to change in a fearful way that resists for the sake of resisting or merely to preserve the status quo, would be a mistake. The important thing is to try to understand change and accept the fact that things around us will not always remain the same, no matter how we prefer our daily routines and habits and no matter how much we want to continue doing things "the way they have always been done."

As lawyers, we have the training and practiced ability to think critically and to reason well. We should always try to avoid reacting in knee-jerk fashion to proposed change simply because it alters our routine, infringes on our turf or presents a view adverse to our own view of the world.

For example, let's consider changes currently proposed to our court system. Both the governor's budget proposal and the SJC Visiting Committee's report have suggested many new ideas that could radically alter the administration and management of justice in Massachusetts for many years to come. So to will a forthcoming report from the MBA's Court Reform 2003 Task Force. A lot of these ideas will cause considerable consternation and angst on Beacon Hill and within our court system, because they change the status quo, propose a new way of doing things and suggest a new way of thinking.

We live in and experience daily a judicial system that has some of the brightest and finest minds in our legal profession yet requires that talent to function and administer justice in an outdated, ineffective, cumbersome, tired and inefficient system that cries out for change - radical change. We can't ignore this and argue for the status quo, we simply can't. Instead, we have an opportunity - and a duty - to gather and share ideas, to consider and appreciate a variety of voices and perspectives, to apply courage and creative thinking in order to achieve the best result.

Whether you're a practicing attorney, a legislator, a judge, a clerk, a court employee, a probation officer or any other of the myriad professions affected by these changes, please don't "just say no." We owe it to ourselves, to our profession, to the general public and to the judicial system in which we practice, to thoughtfully consider, review, study and, in many cases, support change to a system that needs it.

Forget allegiances. Forget turf protection. Forget the fact that some people will be unhappy about change. That's okay. Change is coming, and if you don't accept it, and deal with it, it will roll right over you and leave you behind. So embrace change and the opportunity it affords us to work toward constructing a system that will be more efficient, more workable, more service-delivery oriented and more accountable.

As attorneys, we have a crucial role to play here, and each of us needs to do our part to ensure that coming changes - which are going to happen whether we like them or not - occur in an effective and meaningful way. We should never avoid or fight change because we fear it. If we do, fear wins.

I once read a book that posed a question, and it has remained with me for years, both personally and professionally, as an example of how to react when faced with a tough choice. The question is, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

How would you answer that question?

When the time comes for us to consider change, whether it's in how we fund various services under our state budget or how we react to major changes in our justice system, ask yourself this question first and then think about the proposed change. If we all do this and then resolve to take a meaningful role in helping to effect change, we just might make a difference, an important difference.