No, not a commentary on carnage wreaked by the credit crunch, but another return to the world of warfare for some thoughts on law firm change.
In my last post I mentioned Robert Greene’s excellent book “The 33 Strategies of War”, and was particularly interested in the section on creating a sense of urgency; a phrase which rears its head in many aspects of business life.
In sales and product development, a frequently asked question is “what’s the client’s burning platform?”, meaning why does the client need to solve this problem NOW? In many cases, as I’ve written previously (http://tinyurl.com/2uq8oh6) the lawyer is in the enviable position of solving an urgent and unavoidable problem – defending big ticket litigation for example. In other cases the client’s need is less pressing (for example the need for a data protection audit) and presents law firms with a sales challenge.
Another area the urgency question arises, and this is where I want to pause for a second, is in creating change. The majority of models I have seen for creating change in an organisation start with the need to create a shared sense of urgency (see the work of Kotter for example; in fact “a sense of urgency” is the title of one of his more recent books).
What interests me, is Greene’s assertion that “the world is ruled by necessity: people change their behaviour only if they have to”. He quotes from Sun-tzu in the Art of War, explaining that the famous Chinese strategist advocated creating a “death ground”: a place where the army was penned in and forced to fight as there is no escape route. Faced with death being “viscerally present” (great phrase!) the army would fight with double or triple the spirit and as a result be many times more effective.
The challenge is of course that in all but the harshest City firms (*joke*), death is fairly unlikely for the average Western lawyer, yet in all seriousness there will undoubtedly be some firms and some careers that will end over the coming months as the profession evolves in rapid and dramatic ways.
Readers of this blog are no strangers to my view of the forces changing the market place: globalisation, deregulation, commoditisation and increasing automation, more sophisticated buying behaviours, changing employee priorities and expectations…. the list goes on. These drivers will see firms out of business, industry consolidation, career doors close (and others open of course), yet many, many firms remain slow to change despite the fact that a large proportion of partners both see how different the business landscape is now, even when compared to five years ago.
While I’ve examined some of the barriers to law firm change before, Greene suggests a number of practical strategies to help leaders operate from the “psychological death ground”. I’ve pulled out the main ones below, along with some thoughts on their application to the profession:
Stake everything on a single throw: given a low tolerance for risk, how many law firms make the bold strategic move? Don’t get me wrong, some do and succeed, some do and fail, but many, many more don’t put their eggs in four or five baskets, let alone a single one!
Enter new waters: with a whole host of new competitors about to enter the legal market place (certainly in the UK as early as next year), how many law firms are themselves thinking of entering new markets? Clearly expansion can be difficult in tough economic times, but entering new waters doesn’t have to mean serious capital expense (like opening an office in another geography) – web based services, strategic partnerships, innovative use of technology can all take a firm to new places without blowing the budget.
Make it “you against the world”: read last week’s post about knowing your enemies. How would your team behave if a key client told you that at the end of the year it would only instruct one law firm (out of you and your closest rival)? How would that shape your behaviour now?
Keep yourself restless and unsatisfied: perhaps with margins falling and cash flows looking more challenging, after a period of unprecedented growth, this might be enough to prompt action now. If not, ask yourself what you would do if partner drawings were scheduled to be halved this financial year (in the current environment, they may well be)? How could you and the team or firm survive? What could you do to fight back?
At the end of the day, I think the disconnect between Greene’s theory and reality is the difficulty translating thought into action. If these scenarios were reality, then people and organisations would act and would act quickly. The challenge for the profession, is where death is not yet quite so visceral, can we change quickly enough?
Interesting piece. Reminded me of the response of the then SP of S J Berwin to the question “describe the culture of your firm”. David Hammell (I think it was) replied “a pathological fear of failure”. It clearly worked…at least for a while.
Thanks Julian – very relevant here and also links nicely to some of my posts on the interplay between a fear of failure and the challenges this can bring to innovation (https://intelligentchallenge.wordpress.com/2009/11/07/when-fear-stops-you-going-forward/)
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving” – attributed to Albert Einstein.
As with life so with legal practice – standing still, not changing, is not an option. If you stand still, you almost certainly fall off or go backwards. With this thought in mind the task becomes easier because it becomes a question of how best to keep moving; of how best to respond to, and if possible anticipate, the many changing needs of the legal market, rather than one of deciding whether to change at all. With that mental step change behind us, it ought also to be easier to add a sense of urgency into the mix.
I like the analogy Bill – it’s a bit less threatening than that of the death ground. Perhaps the increasing rate of change just means we all need to pedal a bit harder now though?
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