Change Management: The #1 Skill Every Law Firm Should Have Developed During the COVID-19 Pandemic

8 min read

Nobody could have predicted a global pandemic. But adapting to unpredictable circumstances is how top-performing law firms stay productive and profitable in any circumstance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed, well, everything.

Over the course of the past 15-some-odd months, the pandemic has disrupted businesses, schools, extracurricular sports, travel, trade, and even our vocabulary. (Case in point: How many times did you hear phrases like “social distancing” or “herd immunity” pre-pandemic?)

But perhaps one of the most dramatic changes in the world of business has been the accelerated digitization of work.

In an April 2020 quarterly earnings call with investors, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reported that more than 200 million people participated in a Microsoft Teams call in just one day. Microsoft also reported more than 75 million daily active Teams users. These numbers, Nadella says, show about two years’ worth of growth in two months.

When the pandemic started, companies like Goodyear reported they successfully transitioned 25,000 employees to work-from-home arrangements in a matter of days.

Managing such dramatic change in such a short period of time is one of the key ways that organizations can minimize disruptions and maintain productivity – yes, even during an actual pandemic. Change management is also an effective way to improve your organization’s performance – one study found that every dollar spent on change management produced a $6.50 ROI.

While it is true that no one can predict the future, there are several steps your law firm can take to prepare for potential changes before they happen, so you can pivot your operations without missing a beat.

So how do you ensure that your law firm thrives and easily handles disruption no matter what’s happening in the world? Here’s what you need to know about change management.

Top Performers Know Change is the Only Constant

In September 2020, Chris Fowler, General Counsel for BT Technology in London, UK, told Forbes that “Covid is the end of legal industry incrementalism.”

Experts expect that the slow, gradual changes to the legal industry that have happened since the 2007 recession will accelerate. The pandemic has hastened the adoption of online court hearings, remote working, and cloud collaboration tools. Technology is changing the way lawyers practice law, which is creating opportunities for law firms that know how to adapt.

(It’s also creating some light-hearted moments in the legal community, like in February 2021 when Texas lawyer Rod Ponton accidentally turned himself into a cat during a civil forfeiture hearing taking place via Zoom.)

What is one of the key traits of resilient, adaptable law practices that handle change easily? They don’t react to change; they expect it and then prepare for it.

They are proactive rather than reactive. Their contingency plans have contingency plans. They have a set procedure in place for determining when change is needed and then managing that change. They respond quickly in a crisis because they have already acknowledged ahead of time the need to be flexible and adaptable.

And in many cases, they’ve built a formal framework of tools, procedures, and processes for change, whether that change is in response to a crisis, to take advantage of an emerging opportunity, or to keep up with the state of the industry.

That framework could take a variety of forms depending on the circumstances. 

It might look like a pre-set list of remote work technologies, like VPNs, videoconferencing tools, and legal records management and document automation software that can enable employees to work from home without compromising privacy or security. It will also very likely include a set of specific criteria that decision-makers can use to determine which changes need to be implemented and when.

Every organization’s change-management plan will look slightly different, but at a bare minimum, it will lay out the basic who, what, when, where, why, and how of managing change at an organizational level.

Psychological, Organizational, and Technical Barriers to Change

One essential element of change management involves identifying and then overcoming barriers to change. According to organizational psychologist Nick Tasler, one of the largest barriers that derails organizational change initiatives is negative bias. One widespread belief cited by various management consultancies is the supposed “fact” that 70% of change initiatives fail.

But when researchers investigated this 70% statistic, they found there was no factual or scientific basis for it. 

This belief, and others like it, can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where law firm partners and employees alike abandon even the idea of change out of a preconceived belief that any kind of change will fail. And if the change is likely to fail, then why even attempt it?

The easy (and yet also somehow not-so-easy) fix? Is encouraging your team to have faith that changes will work out. Cite examples of past organizational changes that had a positive impact. Reassure your team that if the change does result in a negative outcome, or if it fails, it’ll be easy to return to the status quo.

You’ll also want to ensure that your company, and the affected staff members, have a compelling reason why the change is happening. Staff can be resistant to change when they don’t see or understand the need or reason for it. An organization-wide change story will explain, in a narrative fashion, why the change is needed and how it’s going to happen. It will show the journey that your organization is on, the goal that you’re trying to achieve, and what the change means for the organization as a whole.

Encouraging your staff to develop their own change stories – personal narratives they use to explain how the change affects them and what outcomes it will create for them – can help your team become more emotionally invested in the change. Psychologists like Paul Zak and Dan McAdams have pioneered the emerging field of narrative psychology, which explores how stories affect the brain and human behaviour. A growing body of research is demonstrating that stories are significantly more persuasive than facts, even in the legal industry. By wrapping up organizational changes inside a set of change stories, you can get your team on board with the change and ensure a smooth transition.

But psychological and organizational factors aren’t the only threats that can cause organizational change to fail. Other barriers to change are more technical in nature, like ensuring the new software you’re about to buy will still work with your existing technological setup.

If you’re adopting a new records management and document automation software, for instance, you’ll want to ensure that it plays nice with your existing tools. That means checking to see if your records management and document automation software can integrate with your QuickBooks or DocuSign account. It sounds obvious, but the easier that shiny new piece of software is to use, the faster your team will adapt to it.

Overcoming Resistance to Change

Staying adaptable and open to change, and having a formal framework for managing that change, is the best way to prepare an organization for making changes – for redeploying resources, for acquiring new systems and tools, and for implementing new procedures.

But the one factor in change management that few law firms plan for is the human element. Resistance to change can happen at any level of an organization, from the C-suite to middle management to the rank and file employees. 

When change resistance happens, it’s important to address it promptly in order to avoid creating a culture of disaffected, disillusioned employees who feel like their opinions don’t matter.

Recruiting change advocates is one effective way that you can enable your organization to more quickly adapt to changes. A change advocate is an employee who helps champion new initiatives and gets others in your firm on board with organizational changes. 

Change advocates are often partners or other management figures, but having associate attorneys – or even paralegals – serve as change advocates can also be useful. In many cases, the most successful change advocates are those your employees view as peers. So if, for example, some of your paralegals are resisting a shift to a cloud-based software system, asking a particularly tech-savvy paralegal to “champion” new software adoption and coach others on using the software can help overcome that resistance.

But a truly great change advocate won’t just model the behaviour you want to reinforce in your team – they’ll also provide the rest of your staff with training and support to build them up as well. Creating lasting change in an organization relies on equipping your entire team with the skills they need to maintain that change.

Another great way to overcome resistance to change is through reward and recognition. Acknowledge when your employees adapt well to change, and reward them appropriately. 

A reward is a tangible thing that you provide in exchange for a job while done. It could be a bonus cheque, or rinkside tickets to an NHL game, or the best parking space in the lot. Whatever it is, make it a highly visual reward that your entire team can see. 

Recognition is less tangible, but it still works just as well as rewards (if not more so). Recognition is more or less what it sounds like – public praise for good performance. If recognizing your staff when they perform well sounds simple, that’s because it is. But it’s also incredibly effective. One set of 3 studies in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Applied Psychology found that recognizing just one team member for a job well done actually improves the entire team’s performance. Reward and recognize your people when they adapt well to change, and they’ll continue to adapt to further changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of change management for every law firm. But it would be a mistake to assume that you can go back to business as usual after the pandemic ends. Sudden changes can cause industry disruptions at any time, and the firms that have embraced change management will be well-positioned to identify and capitalize on new opportunities when these disruptions happen. By planning for change ahead of time, you can ensure that your law firm always comes out on top.

Appara has recently overhauled our blog to serve as the smart lawyer’s go-to resource for practical business management advice.

Looking for more insights to give your law practice a boost? Keep checking back for the latest.

Join our newsletter

Engaging insights and the latest news, designed for legal professionals.

Email Newsletter Signup