By Linda Murray, Speaker, Facilitator and Executive Coach, Athena Leadership Academy
As we all know the legal profession is undergoing its greatest period of transformation at present: the sands are literally shifting beneath your feet. As practice managers and leaders it’s often your role to not only stay on top of all the fast transformation within the industry, but also, to ensure that staff remain calm and retention remains steady.
It’s no mean feat, even for those of you with years of experience in practice management.
The traditional legal services model is not only under scrutiny for how it can become more efficient and accessible, it’s under threat from non-law firm service providers entering the market at a rapid rate, that are attempting to provide alternate methods of access to legal advice. There is an unprecedented level of multi-faceted change presently.
Now, in the long term it remains to be seen how clients respond to these offerings (be it new remote working solutions for contracted independent lawyers, AI technology replacing existing lawyers or simply alternate models to the traditional law firms). What is certain is that in the interim, these new players, and what they offer are all certainly shaking up the way things have “always been done”. This tends to make lawyers nervous, very nervous.
Additionally, the role of both law firms themselves, and those that work within it, are changing with greater speed and more dynamically than ever before. Client expectations are changing towards more immediacy, and an expectation of greater technological applications to help them an a more integrated way. Add to this the nature of the industry as being somewhat slow to change as a whole.
All of this shake up can result in a nervousness in employees, whether they are concerned about their positions (legal and non-legal), and also the possibility they are exploring some of the alternate options themselves.
In light of all this, what can you do to ensure attrition remains at natural rates, that your staff remain focused on the work at hand, and to ensure clients experience minimal disruption to their everyday expectations?
Below are some of the strategies that we recommend at Athena Leadership Academy to keep your ship steady during turbulent times. They will help you to better understand your team’s perspective and give you the insight you need to help your team deal with change.
It is understood, but sadly underestimated, that changes in the workplace fail because leaders don’t adequately anticipate and minimise their team’s resistance to any disruption in the status quo.
Plan for resistance
As human beings, we so easily fall into habits and our brains see repetition and routines as “safe”. This is especially so in the legal industry, as of all the professional services industries, it is often the most reticent towards wholesale change. Given this general historical attitude, and the hierarchical partnership model, it’s only natural that your team will be reluctant to embrace change, even if it is something that will benefit them.
Great leaders anticipate and plan for push back against their ideas, innovations and upgrades. So, long before you introduce changes to your team, sit down and think of the reasons why your team may oppose the plan, at least initially.
Think about why they might fear the planned changes. How might you reduce or counter their fears? Are their concerns well founded or grounded in historical attitudes? Are there some misconceptions to be cleared up so they can see the benefits of making a change?
Could it be that there is a concern about the security of their roles if the change is of a more significant nature? Lawyers are by nature often conservative-minded to find a problem where there may not be one simply because that’s what they are trained to do. It’s the nature of those involved in professionally applying critical thinking and problem solving approaches. Therefore, addressing this concern early in a planned and measured way is a great first step.
Creating a plan to address your team’s concerns will reduce their fear and anxiety. It will also make it easier for them to “pitch in” and do their part in implementing the change.
Build trust with open communication
When implementing changes, be upfront and honest with your people. Let them know what you know about the upcoming disruption, and be transparent about how it will impact them to the extent that you know this information. Also, be open about what you don’t know.
Make yourself available to talk with your people both as a group, and one on one, and continue to give regular updates as you gain new information and as the initiative moves forward. As your team learns that they can trust you to look out for their interests, their resistance to the change will decrease.
Be specific with goals and expectations
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is not communicating exactly what new behaviour is expected from their teams. They fail to tell them what specific actions they expect in the new way of working and how it will benefit them and the company.
Be very clear about what you expect from your team. Set time-based goals where progress can be measured. Set benchmarks to let your people know the target that they are trying to reach. Give specific examples of what you want from your team moving forward so they know exactly what behaviours and actions are now expected of them and others in your organisation.
Now, this part is important.
Don’t just tell them what you want but tie the change to your organisation’s values and vision. Even better, how it will tie in with their goals. This way, they can not only see how the change helps the organisation achieve its mission, but also how it helps them achieve their own vision. This helps build their commitment to the change.
Use the power of the herd to your advantage
In every group, there are “early adopters,” quick to adopt new ideas and products. These people, specifically if they are at the more senior end of the partnership spectrum, are to be leveraged as much as possible.
Next is the main body of the group, who may resist innovation in the beginning, until they can see the benefits of changing.
Finally, there are the “stragglers,” who will hold out against change for as long as possible.
One way to get more of your people to join in and support the changes is to use the power of “group think”, and identify leaders early on that are able to influence others to embrace the change more readily.
Openly praise, recognise and reward those members of your team who first embrace the change initiative. As the number of supporters of the change grows, be certain to update your people on the progress of implementing the change. Gentle peer pressure will encourage others to join in and support the change.
One word of caution: never underestimate the power of an influential person who is NOT on board with the businesses plan for change, specifically in traditionally minded industries like law. These people are critical to not only identify, but to as quickly as possible, shift their mindset. Just one or two of these people at a senior level can derail the success of any change implementation. Spend time bringing these people into the fold, listening and addressing any specific concerns. Help them recognise how the change will be a positive one, not something that will negatively impact their ability to do their jobs “their way”. It’s a real issue, and one if you address early, will make for much smoother progress.
Involve your people in the process
If you want your people to support change in your organisation, make it easy for them to be a part of the process. Where possible, involve your people in the process of deciding what needs to be changed, and how it will be changed.
Allow them to brainstorm and come up with options of what processes, policies or procedures will be changed and specifically how they are to be changed and improved.
Involving your team throughout the process helps them to become invested in its success. When your team feels that they had a say in the decision-making process, they are more likely to accept and embrace the changes instead of resisting.
Change is hard for all of us to accept in the beginning. By using your people skills, you can open lines of communication with your team. This simple act grants you the insight that you need to answer questions, allay fears, and more deeply involve your team in the change process, increasing the likelihood of its long-term success.
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