Why change is so hard

Last week’s New Yorker column by James Surowiecki talked about health care reform in the United States, but it has something important to say about change in the legal profession too. Surowiecki noted the sudden remarkable rise in the number of Americans who say they’re satisfied with their current health coverage. Among other factors, he puts this down to people’s deep-set psychological aversion to give up what they’ve got in favour of something new:

Most of us, for instance, are prey to the so-called “endowment effect”: the mere fact that you own something leads you to overvalue it. A simple demonstration of this was an experiment in which some students in a class were given coffee mugs emblazoned with their school’s logo and asked how much they would demand to sell them, while others in the class were asked how much they would pay to buy them. Instead of valuing the mugs similarly, the new owners of the mugs demanded more than twice as much as the buyers were willing to pay….

What this suggests about health care is that, if people have insurance, most will value it highly, no matter how flawed the current system. And, in fact, more than seventy per cent of Americans say they’re satisfied with their current coverage. More strikingly, talk of changing the system may actually accentuate the endowment effect. Last year, a Rasmussen poll found that only twenty-nine percent of likely voters rated the U.S. health-care system good or excellent. Yet when Americans were asked the very same question last month, forty-eight per cent rated it that highly. The American health-care system didn’t suddenly improve over the past eleven months. People just feel it’s working better because they’re being asked to contemplate changing it.

Compounding the endowment effect is what economists dub the “status quo bias.” Myriad studies have shown that, even if you set ownership aside, most people are inclined to keep things as they are. … Some of this may be the result of simple inertia, but our hesitancy to change is also driven by our aversion to loss. Behavioral economists have established that we feel the pain of losses more than we enjoy the pleasure of gains. So when we think about change, we focus more on what we might lose, rather than on what we might get. Even people who aren’t all that happy with the current system, then, are still likely to feel anxious about whatever will replace it.

That sounds to me like a neat encapsulation of what’s happening to a legal profession facing unprecedented pressure to change. The outside forces attacking the industry’s status quo (technology, competition, client sophistication and generational shifts) grow stronger every year. In addition, there’s more dialogue than ever before within the profession about changing billing practices, law firm structure, talent management, technology usage, billable targets, client relationships, etc. And by most measures, a remarkable number of lawyers aren’t really that satisfied with their work or their careers. In theory, change should be rolling like a river through the profession right now.

But those of us in the change camp remain perplexed by the steady and growing levels of resistance we still encounter — not just among lawyers and law firms, but also among clients, law schools, and others. It seems like the harder we push, the more tightly lawyers grip the familiar features of their current system. And Suroweicki’s article presents a plausible explanation — the very act of advocating change increases lawyers’  resistance and their belief that the status quo is just fine, thanks.

So I’m coming to think we’ve been taking the wrong approach. Many of us, and I’m as guilty as anyone, tend to dismiss lawyers’ opposition to change — change that would make for a profoundly better legal system — as being grounded in selfishness, short-sightedness, and bloody-minded traditionalism. And I still think these factors do play some part.  But if we look at the situation through less jaundiced eyes, and take into account these natural and largely inescapable human tendencies towards preservation of the familiar, we can come to understand the resistance more clearly, and judge the resisters less harshly. The way things are, even if they’re not that great, still seem self-evidently good and preferable to the cost that change might exact.

So how can change be effected in an environment psychologically programmed to over-value the status quo? Here are three possible approaches:

1. Question the permanence of what people already have. Surowiecki suggests that Americans’ health coverage is far more tenuous than they think it is, and that therefore “the endowment that insured people want to hold on to is much shakier than it appears. … The message, in other words, should be: if we want to protect the status quo, we need to reform it.” Lawyers have been warned about the unsustainability of the current system and how much they stand to lose if wholesale reform from outside the profession sweeps away their privileges. But lawyers don’t frighten easily, and many have an unrealistic picture of their irreplacability in the greater scheme of things. This approach could yield more success as the upheaval inevitably gets rougher down the road, but probably not before.

2. Demonstrate the great advantages of change over the status quo. People may not want to sell that free mug for less than twice its value. But offer them a titanium thermos with built-in GPS and they’ll trade up in a hurry. Resistance to change springs largely from overestimating both the benefits of what you now have and the costs of what you would get, so headway may depend on showing that change is overwhelmingly positive: you will make more money, get more clients, have more free time, be happier, by taking a different approach. So we need to highlight (and reward) as many huge success stories of innovative lawyers as possible. We need more projects like Legal Rebels, showing off all the benefits to be derived from abandoning the status quo and embracing better ways of being a lawyer. It won’t convince everybody, but it will push us closer to a watershed.

3. Make the change as incremental as possible. People are usually more amenable to change if they don’t think of it as something wholesale and irreversible. So instead of advocating fixed fees across the board, maybe you isolate one or two small clients or practice  areas that could serve as laboratories. Rather than abandoning lockstep compensation altogether, maybe you start by adding some merit-based criteria to the existing salary structure. Once these small innovations take hold, you can press forward with more. Over the years, I’ve found that terms like “pilot project,” “test case,” “private launch” and so forth are remarkably effective in getting lawyers to lower their guard and try something different. Minimizing the risk and playing down the possibility of permanent change might undermine the overall case for innovation, but in practical terms it could deliver better results.

There’s at least one big difference between the US health-care debate and the upheaval in the legal profession. To a great extent, the health-care consumers themselves control the process of change through the electoral system, so if they decide they want things to stay the same, they will — at least until the system breaks down someday. Lawyers, by contrast, don’t control any of the factors that are causing or, like the recession, accelerating the change in the legal services marketplace. We can ignore the tsunami all we like, but the waves are still coming in regardless.

That makes it all the more important that resistance to change within the profession — natural and understandable as it is — be overcome. Most lawyers are either comfortable with their existence or don’t ask too much from their careers, so they automatically defend the current system without asking themselves: Is it really all that great for me? Couldn’t I do a lot better? What, exactly, am I fighting so hard to preserve? Getting lawyers to ask — and then answer — these questions will be more than half the battle.


Comments are closed.