“Extreme inertia”: Why change if nothing’s on fire?

It is often said that we only really contemplate change when there is a “burning platform”; in other words when the motivation for change is so pressing that we are in immediate peril or at the very least the status quo has become deeply, deeply unattractive.

We are generally very good at passively resisting change. In effect we have become expert in the art of practicing extreme inertia.

Extreme inertia is part of everyday life. How many of us wait until we have a wet sock before we fix the hole in our shoe, or have a tooth ache before we fix a broken tooth? In a less flippant example I once worked with an in-house team who told me their manager was rubbish, their business uninspiring and their colleagues stupid. When I pointed out that maybe they should change their outlook or leave nearly all the lawyers said in terms “well, better the devil you know”!

It seems clear to me that without the pressing motivation of pain/disadvantage, a situation that is obviously becoming unattractive or unpromising will still not be enough to make us change. I am convinced this is one reason why the legal profession isn’t more excitable just now around all the things happening in our markets with new competitors, new regulation and different client expectations.

The men and women in our bigger law firms, for example, are well paid, work in nice offices and with intelligent colleagues. There is nothing much wrong here and perhaps therefore rather obviously no-one is jumping up and down for change. Indeed the perception for many is that while business might be a bit ropey just now, if you can stick it out and make it to partner, then more money and status is just around the corner.

Saying to anyone in this situation that the world is changing fast and you need to change with it, is counter intuitive. In addition the leadership in the profession, almost by definition, is at the top and reaping the benefits of the journey they have been on; the last thing they want is significant change while they are still at the helm.

There are therefore two possibilities to contemplate:

·      First, that those who are calling for change to respond to a new emerging landscape are just plain wrong. Recessions come and go, markets bubble and burst, but in the end, lawyers are on safe ground longer term. Or

·      The profession really is going through a major process of change, but that the negative consequences are not being fully felt so without the burning platform we are drifting on our raft of extreme inertia towards an unhappy end.

My view, for what it is worth, is that the legal market is in the throes of deep and dramatic change facilitated by technology, by liberalisation of markets and by different client expectations; but above all fuelled by a dawning realisation that being a “lawyer” doesn’t mean very much if 60-80% of one’s workload is process driven, administrative and largely routine.

There isn’t a burning platform, not yet anyway, in part because clients do not fully realise the power they now have to effect significant change. The law firm response so far has been limited and when clients do force further changer the platform may start to smoulder if not actually catch fire.

What’s to be done therefore?

My advice – and it is advice which should be comfortable even if you think I am wrong about the way the market is changing – is for firms to do three things:

1.    Law firms should create a small project group (not all drawn from the senior ranks) to survey the market, sense check client ambition for change and to highlight risk and opportunity. The project group should report quarterly for the first year, but the ambition for the group should be to come forward with ideas that can be debated by the whole firm after a year of research.

2.    Law firms should invite their trainee cohort and junior associates to come up with their ideas for what the firm might be like in five and ten years time in terms of the type of work the firm will it be doing, how will it deliver its services, what will be the profile of the client base etc. This review work should be done annually and should feed into both the project group and the senior management team

3.    Firms must also engage with clients. Not necessarily to ask what they want (the Henry Ford observation is ever relevant “before the invention of the automobile, if you asked what folks wanted from transportation, they would have said faster horses”) but to properly listen to their frustrations, concerns, their hopes, their ambitions etc and to then respond with service and product development.

The clever and important thing however is then to link all three activities, so that the outputs are brought together to be assessed, analysed and prioritised as part of a coherent effort to encourage adaption (at least) and possibly significant change.

The energy from these efforts might allow early detection of any “smoke” and give some focus and ambition to manage change more successfully than might be the case otherwise.

Paul Gilbert is Chief Executive of LBC Wise Counsel, the UK based specialist management and skills training consultancy for lawyers. www.lbcwisecounsel.com