White-water change management

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If you help make the decisions at a large law firm anywhere in the world, I assume you’ve been keeping tabs on the developing impact of the UK’s Legal Services Act. There’s been talk about the fallout from the Clementi Report for quite awhile now, especially regarding share offerings by law firms. Seminars are coming up and commentaries have been published; now, we might be about to see a practical application of all the talk.

A Legal Week story published late last week contains this striking opening paragraph: “Lyceum Capital has become the first investment house to openly target legal services, as the private equity firm moves to position itself ahead of sweeping deregulation of the U.K. profession.” Lyceum is not fooling around: the investment house has set up an advisory panel that includes, among others, Richard Susskind and Tony Williams. Any project with those two people on board is to be taken seriously. Big, creatively destructive change is coming, and fast.

This leads me to think that a lot of firms are not taking the ideal approach to change management. There’s a tendency, in any change initiative, to imagine that your organization is fixed, your environment is fixed, and all you’re doing is moving your organization from A to B — shifting the furniture, basically. This overlooks the reality that (a) every organization operates in (and is affected by) multiple external environments simultaneously, and (b) the organization itself is changing every day, whether its members know it or like it.

A better way to approach change management might be to envision your environment as a wild river, the kind you go white-water rafting on: fast, unpredictable, dangerous in parts, requiring constant course corrections. Your job is to navigate that river by guiding your craft along it as best you can — while understanding that the shape of your craft, the people handling the paddles, and your overall water-worthiness are constantly in flux, often in ways that are beyond your control.

The legal marketplace has never been a fixed room full of furniture, but for many years it was a pretty sedate stream. It’s been a rougher ride than that for quite a few years now, but I’m here to tell you: there are white, foaming rapids ahead, maybe steeper than we’ve ever seen, and a lot of boats aren’t going to make it. Those that do will be focused on riding the waves, staying alert to the dangers, keeping one eye on the far shore, and most of all, understanding one key thing: you’re not in full control. The river has more to say about your destination than you do.

Successful change management in this environment requires both a commitment to do whatever it takes to survive coupled with an appreciation of the modest influence you can exert over the end result. As we enter a time of true upheaval in the legal profession, place your highest priority on alertness, adaptability, acceptance of powerful forces, and a focused, unified effort on the goal. Give your full attention to what you can control, keep a respectful eye on what you can’t, and make sure everyone understands and accepts the difference between the two.

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