A law firm’s immune system

12 07 2010

In his book “Your Next Move” (which is excellent by the way) Michael Watkins introduces the concept of the corporate immune system. The idea is that organisations develop unspoken systems to protect their culture when threatened by a “foreign body” inside them. This is examined in the context of a new person joining the company, and exhibiting behaviours that are so different to the way things are typically done; these are unconsciously seen as a threat and the company responds accordingly. However, it wasn’t the recruitment of lawyers that got me thinking about the implications of this, but instead what it meant for an organisation’s ability to change.

Wasn't the partnership immune system supposed to stop this?

In my experience, many of the larger law firms put a strong emphasis on cultural fit with their recruitment, reducing the need for this corporate (or partnership) immune response (as they are less likely to recruit people likely to exhibit very different behaviour than that found in the firm). Given that the majority of lawyers will come from other law firms that will be fairly well known to the recruiting firm, the chances of any radically different behaviour from the new recruit are reduced further.

What though, does this mean for a law firm’s ability to change? If it is recruiting like-minded people, has been in existence for a very long time (as most firms have) and developed a strong culture, has a consensual decision making process, and is populated with people drawn to a conservative, risk-averse profession? Now of course I’m making some generalisations here, but in my experience managing change is an area many firms really struggle with; and there is no shame in that. Managing change is messy, difficult and time consuming, and this is true whether you are a law firm, large corporation or public sector body. It’s tough because it’s fundamentally about people, and this means that the process can’t be neatly packaged up and done as a “paint by numbers”.

However, the factors at the start of the previous paragraph conspire to make it more difficult still for law firms. Combine that with the fact lawyers are often independent thinkers, with a propensity to challenge and question, and the organisational capacity to change falls further. If, on top of this, the firm recruits in its own image, where will the change come from? Who will challenge the status quo?

I believe this issue needs addressing, and addressing quickly. Lawyers are facing massive changes in their profession, coming from a number of different drivers from deregulation to globalisation to technology. The ability of a firm to change will, be a significant factor in their ability not just to win in their marketplace but to survive.

Getting in external change support can certainly help, but I believe these are skills that law firms do and will need in-house, and not just in token numbers. Another idea, is helping all employees (and I include partners in this context) becoming more change adaptive. When in-house, my employer put all director-level employees and above through a change agility programme called “The New Reality”. Reaction to this varied (I loved it: my favourite quote “today is the slowest life will be. It will only get faster”), but one thing it did do was create a common vocabulary and baseline understanding that certainly helped with future changes.

Change is coming. The incremental change (while it might not have felt like that!) of the last decade may not be enough in future. What can you do to adapt and facilitate change in your organisation?

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3 responses

13 07 2010
Ravinder Mahal

Interesting article. From my experience the ‘immune’ system tends to start as a ‘softer’ level lower down where Partners in larger organisations, as a whole, have less influence in recruitment decisions and more sophisticated recruitment techniques, and labour law to a certain extent, ensure some impartiality in the process. Quite often this process is subject to the decisions of very different sub-cultures that exist at Department level i.e. as between say Employment and Corporate, particularly in larger organisations. However, the ‘cultural immune system’ hardens much more so at Partner level when they are inviting someone to join Partnership. This is a wider partnership decision and often more around how they ‘feel’ about someone.

30 08 2011
Lawyers – Just. Do. Something. « The Intelligent Challenge

[...] putting aside the difficulty many law firms have with change generally (which I’ve written about before), and some of the negative behaviours driven by the hourly rate billing model,  I think there are [...]

7 09 2011
Lawyers – Just. Do. Something.

[...] putting aside the difficulty many law firms have with change generally (which I’ve written about before), and some of the negative behaviours driven by the hourly rate billing model,  I think there [...]

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