I wish I could report that the legal landscape, which is
complex, competitive and the result of significant economic changes
over the past 10 years, is finished changing. Unfortunately, that
is unlikely. The thought leaders in the business and legal world,
who spend their days noticing and analyzing the economic patterns,
locally and globally, know that significant changes continue and
that most lawyers are not yet prepared to respond strategically and
The still-changing legal landscape
"We are in one of those great historical periods that occur
every 200 or 300 years when people don't understand the world
anymore, and the past is not sufficient to explain the future."
-- Peter Drucker
Lawyers are particularly susceptible to looking toward the past
to predict the future. It's part of our training. Indeed, the best
lawyers are particularly adept at using the past to make sense of
the present and explain the future. Using this skill for business
decisions is a huge mistake. The only way lawyers avoid this trap
is by adjusting their thinking in ways that are contrary to the
thinking that has largely contributed to their professional
"We have entered an Age of Disruption."
-- C. Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer
Changes in statutory and case law usually happen slowly. These
changes are never proactive. They respond to a significant need
that has been present for a while. They lag behind the needs of
society. Responding to a business environment defined by disruption
requires being proactive, anticipating possibilities, trying out
solutions to see what might work and adjusting strategies that are
implemented iteratively. This type of process is the antithesis of
the change paradigm that lawyers have been practicing religiously
since law school.
The changes in the business of law are profound, ongoing and
continue to create future scenarios that are difficult to
anticipate with the clarity that lawyers crave. The wisest approach
is to manage the business with competencies to manage ambiguity and
adapt to an unfolding future as it appears.
2015 report on the state of the legal
- The market for legal services has changed permanently.
- 67 percent of firm leaders say that the pace of change will
- Only 13 percent of these leaders are confident that their firms
will keep pace with change. This is a nearly 50 percent drop in
confidence from 24 percent in 2011.
- Business demands for litigation dropped of in 2008 and continue
- Business spending on legal service adjusted for inflation has
fallen 25.8 percent over the past 10 years.
- Non-traditional competitors in the legal services sector
continue to grow with a shift by business clients to non-law firm
- 63 percent of businesses are in-sourcing legal work.
- In firms where the profits-per-partner measure of firm
performance has grown steadily, it is mostly a function of
significant cost-cutting. This is not a growth strategy. This is a
strategy that creates organizational vulnerability.
When firms employ a growth strategy by acquisition or merger,
the expected return on financial investment and time spent
nurturing the merger is often not realized because the law firrm
business model and consequential culture does not support the
expansion of business from current clients through cross-selling,
and instead encourages lawyers not to share access to their clients
and not to spend the time to develop trust and communication with
new partners and across practice groups. Coincidentally, the model
and culture also drive behaviors contrary to those required to
support diversity with inclusion.
Even assuming that the empowered leaders of a law firm want to
change their business model and culture, actually doing so is still
a significant challenge, demanding external support, development of
new competencies and a well-executed, planned, change strategy.
Responding Effectively and Changing When Change is
"When you can't anticipate the change to come, it's important to
be capable of adapting to the situation that arises."
- Edward E. Lawler, III & Christopher G. Worley, Built
to Change, 2006
Adapting to change is a process and situational adaptability is
a competency that people can learn and master. Law firm leaders are
responsible for creating law firms capable of adapting to an
unfolding future as it unfolds. Doing so is "extremely difficult
because it often requires the development of new core competencies
and … changes in structures and [processes] that were built for
stability," Lawler and Worley wrote in their book, Built to
However, it is achievable with an understanding of how
intentional, strategic change is created.
Organizational changes include:
- Planned culture changes to improve adaptability, communication,
leadership, business development and client retention, continuous
learning and improvement, innovation and inclusion.
- Client development, retention and cross-selling programs and
- Post-merger and acquisition integrations and organizational
- Succession planning for leadership and clients.
- Talent engagement, development, advancement and retention
programs and plans.
Change is hard, so resistance is common and manifests with
myriad symptoms, including complaints about fairness or
reasonableness of a situation, concerns about risk and safety
related to oneself, one's group or the entire organization, and
even denial of problems, confusion about what to do or paralysis.
Frequently, change initiatives fall short of creating the intended
outcomes or fail altogether.
Call to mind the list of law firms that equated growth with
mergers or acquisitions and measures of profit per individual
partner instead of creating a culture that would drive
organizational profit through expansion of services and legal work
for existing clients and client retention through succession
planning. Exactly where are they now?
Approximately 75 percent of change initiatives fail, threaten
the survival of the organization, create substantial disruptions to
the business, or otherwise leave an organization worse off than
before the strategy was implemented. Successes, mild or otherwise,
seem to hover around 10-15 percent, according to Kim S. Cameron and
Robert E. Quinn in Diagnosing and Changing Organizational
Culture. Law firm leaders who design growth strategies on a
foundation of the four principles of strategic change increase the
likelihood of success and minimize substantial threats to their
The four principles of strategic change are:
- Strategic change begins with a clear vision and goals. What is
the law firm trying to change and why?
- Strategic organizational change requires leadership. In
particular, it needs a leader who is able to communicate, drive
vision, goals, engagement and persuade others take on their part in
making the strategy successful.
- Strategic change succeeds when those involved in the planning
or implementation and those affected by the changes created have
the right competencies. The predominant competencies are the
ingredients of the firm's culture and ability to implement the
- Change is difficult and uncomfortable for everyone. It is easy
for the process to stall. Leaders must be able to diagnose and
address obstacles when they arise.
Principle #1: Strategic change is strategic
Strategy is a process of noticing changes in the legal
landscape, making an organized series of decisions, and taking
action that causes forward movement toward goals and a vision of
success. Astute leaders notice changes in the legal landscape,
analyze them and decide the possible and likely opportunities and
threats that will unfold in the near future. These key elements
include your clients and their business or personal needs, wants,
expectations, pain points and preferences, your vendors, your
competitors and the general economic environment.
They also identify organizational strengths available to access
those opportunities and address those threats, and then develop a
plan. Today, prescient leaders are routinely discussing with their
teams the present situations in their external and internal
environments. They discuss their organization's values, identity
and vision. They evaluate their organizational culture and whether
it is aligned with the organizational vision and goals. If not
aligned, culture will serve as an extremely strong source of
resistance. Given the massive changes in the legal industry,
effective responses and new growth strategies for law firms of any
size often requires changes to a law firm's values, identity and
culture, especially if the culture drives stability over responding
to changes in the external environment by intentionally
Principle #2: Strategic change requires
Intentional, strategic, organizational change starts when a
leader becomes aware of growth opportunities and threats to
continued performance levels, develops ideas about what to do to
improve organizational performance, creates a vision, communicates
what to do and why and engages empowered partners to support and
participate in the implementation of a strategic plan.
Organizational change is a team process. The law firm managing
partner or CEO leads the change leadership team, often composed of
office managing partners, executive or policy committee lawyers,
practice group leaders and the partners in charge of talent
development or business development. Each member of the change
leadership team leads his or her own team in implementation of the
change strategy action plan. Change plans are implemented in a
cascading fashion from the highest levels of formal authority
Principle #3: Those leading a change initiative and
those affected must have the right competencies
The most important competencies required of leaders at all
- Understanding the legal industry, the industries of key clients
and the relevant perspectives that may be global and culturally
different, and applying the knowledge to advance organizational
strategy and goals.
- The ability to make good and timely decisions that are relevant
to moving forward the law firm's growth strategy and in particular
the specific change initiative, even when there is a lot of
information that is complex and appears contradictory.
- The ability to anticipate and address the needs of multiple
stakeholders with contrary interests and concerns.
- The ability to be action oriented and drive results even under
difficult circumstances - to take on difficult challenges with a
positive, energetic and resourceful attitude.
- The ability to manage others with strong communication skills,
including giving and receiving feedback effectively, managing
conflict, delegating tasks to others clearly, relating with a
diverse group of people effectively by adjusting styles when
necessary, and holding others accountable.
- The ability to build relationships with others to meet shared
objectives and locate and leverage the resources (people, money,
time) necessary to support organizational goals.
- Resilience, courage, adaptability and the ability to instill
Assessments, including 360 assessments, are valuable to (1)
evaluate the ability of the people to lead and respond to change,
(2) develop a common language for change and leadership as an early
step to a culture change and (3) design a skill-development plan to
create sufficient competency to drive the change forward. Although
many assessments are available, I suggest using an assessment
backed by a robust model and developmental materials. A law firm
has no reason to create its own developmental model from scratch
when excellent resources already exist and can be integrated into
talent development models. Law firms also can build a robust change
leadership team by using a consultant certified and trained to use
resources such as the Korn Ferry Leadership Architect and Voices
Principle #4: Change is a difficult and uncomfortable
Change is hard and filled with discomfort because of the loss of
familiar routines and the challenge of learning new skills. It is
particularly difficult for people and cultures ingrained with
beliefs that change should be slow, risks avoided, stability is
best and the past is a good source of information about how to
approach the future. Strategic changes also take more time than is
often anticipated. For example, a culture change takes years to
achieve. Organizational growth through merger or acquisition
depends on a culture that encourages cross-selling. Successfully
moving into a new market (geographic, industry or expertise needed)
is a multi-faceted project, requiring adjustments to many parts of
the organization's structures, processes and the competencies,
thinking and behaviors of the people.
Most people resist change and implement strategies built on
familiar ways of doing things. In other words, they try to change
the problem situation by using the strategic plans, thinking and
behaviors that it.
- A law school with a declining applicant pool, following rising
unemployment or underemployment for its graduates, adds new law
practice management courses without changing its business
- A job hunter has received few interviews and submits more
applications without changing where to look for job openings, the
types of jobs considered or the content of a resume and cover
- A law firm hires a consultant to create a strategic plan for
organizational growth and then is unable to implement any changes.
The leadership group meets regularly to discuss the plan, and every
meeting has the same people arguing the same positions and offering
the same reasons for the firm's inability to implement change
instead of addressing the group's inability to communicate
effectively and reach decisions they can implement without
The legal landscape continues to change. Law firm management
tactics aimed to maintain stability are not effective. Only those
law firms, with leaders prepared to respond intentionally and
strategically, will survive and thrive.
This article first appeared in the American Bar Association
Journal, Law Practice Today, on April 14, 2015.
Susan Letterman White, JD, MS, is a principal in
Letterman White Consulting, a consulting practice devoted to
improving organization and team performance and training people to
think like business leaders. She works with organizations to change
their structures and processes to improve business performance. She
also runs Lawyers Leaders & Teams, a company devoted to
marketing and leadership development training for lawyers. Her
advanced training in business strategy and group facilitation from
American University and NTL is integrated into all program designs.
She designs and delivers performance-improvement programs that
include: organization growth strategy, diversity and inclusion,
business development and cross-selling, and strategic communication
and conflict management. She frequently uses assessments and other
tools to help her clients change the way they think and is
certified to administer and interpret the Myers Briggs Type