9 Principles of Global Change Management for Law Departments

How to move everyone in the same direction and avoid crises


If you were around during the 1960s and your family had a television set, you watched The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed featured music, comedy, dance, circus, and other acts, and he loved an act by Erich Brenn. To the music “Sabre Dance,” Erich would spin plates on bamboo poles. Starting with one pole and one dish, Erich would add poles and dishes until he had a whole line of them going at once. Erich would race back and forth adding spin to the plates that were slowing down so no dishes would fall and break (though occasionally Erich did lose one or two).

When I think of that act, it reminds me of leaders driving change in global businesses. They run from crisis to crisis, hoping to add enough spin to keep a disaster from happening before dashing off to the next crisis. Change management on a global scale can look like controlled chaos, without the control.

Global change management is a process and you can make it function well. By following the 9 principles set out later in this article, you can bring control to your global change management process and get everyone on your team moving in the same direction.

But first, lawyers have to embrace change

The omnipresence of change has entered the legal industry around the world and settled in. To the millions of lawyers affected, change brings with it that thing which lawyers studiously avoid: risk. Each change rearranges the ground beneath them and brings along the possibility that control systems won’t adjust fast enough and “the bad thing” will happen.

To compound matters, change in the legal industry has not been one tectonic shift. Lawyers experience constant rumbles as they try to leave centuries of practice methodologies behind and develop new ones demanded by clients, and shifts in technology and values.

Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future — John F. Kennedy

As they navigate through this treacherous landscape, lawyers often find themselves, as they have in the past, in leadership roles. But, lawyers are not trained to be leaders. As Deborah L. Rhode, Stanford School of Law Professor, said in her book Lawyers as Leaders, “It is ironic that the occupation most responsible for producing America’s leaders has focused so little attention on that role… Although leadership development is now a forty-five billion dollar industry, and an Amazon search reveals close to 88,000 leadership books in print, the topic is largely missing in legal education.”

Leadership includes guiding organizations and individuals through change. This leaves the legal industry in an unenviable position. Under the guidance of untrained leaders, lawyers must navigate through a continually shifting field of developing and changing values, technologies, and ideologies about practicing law, certain that a slip here or a fall there will bring cascades of risk down and lead to the demise of the legal profession.

Take heart — the world isn’t crashing down

While that description fits the mood of many lawyers, reality is less melodramatic. Change is here to stay and lawyers around the globe must navigate it. But the legal industry has an advantage in being one of the last industries to change. It can learn from those who have gone through change before it.

The most significant thing we have learned from thechange efforts of others is that changing an organization is prone to failure. Studies over many decades repeatedly show that about 70% of change efforts end without success. To end up with the 30% who succeed, it is important to tackle change with the same level of planning you have given to what it is you want to change.

My experience with global change management

Over 20 years ago my employer sent me for Lean thinking training in Japan with Shingijutsu Consulting Ltd. who had arranged for me to do a kaizen event with one of their business partners.

For my training, I was sent to work on air conditioners at a major manufacturer. The shop floor sounded like we were inside the air conditioners rather than making them. There wasn’t a soft surface in sight to absorb sound, so the slightest noise bounced around the room adding to the general din. Here on the shop floor where we were learning how to assemble electronic control panels for air conditioning units and could barely hear each through the ear plugs, I was learning important lessons about global change management.

Photo by Yuya Shino/Reuters

My kaizen team members were all experienced executives. I spoke English as did my team co-leader. But, we also had two members from Switzerland (the Italian speaking area, of course), two from Germany, and two from India. English might be the universal language of business, but it was not the universal language of the team. We settled on a mix of English and sort-of-English, hand gestures, and drawings as our communication medium. To add to the confusion, the production workers and our sensei (teacher) spoke only Japanese, though we did have a translator some of the time.

During the week, our team learned how to do a kaizen event the way the creators of lean thinking (Toyota engineers) thought it should be done. As importantly, we learned how to drive change across language barriers, cultural differences, and ideology clashes. Eventually, we learned that it wasn’t so much where we were coming from as where we wanted to go. If we had a clear vision of our goals, recognized that we needed to be flexible when working with each other, and celebrated the successes more than we mourned the failures, we could — and did — succeed.

Understanding the quirks of global teams

Global change efforts face some challenges. Language can be a problem. In a profession where words often have precise meaning, translation slips can lead to widely different results. Lawyers from common law jurisdictions have different perspectives than lawyers from civil law jurisdictions. The rules of professional responsibility differ significantly from one jurisdiction to the next. Even the role of the lawyer within an organization varies. In some countries, lawyers play important roles equivalent to that of other senior managers. In other countries, lawyers play less significant roles.

The distribution of personality types in law departments and other legal services delivery organizations does not mirror the distribution in the general population. Most strikingly, in law we find five times as many INTJs on the Myers-Briggs personality scale (Introversion iNtuition Thinking and Judgment) as we find in the general population (seven times as many when it comes to women). Try to change a team of INTJs the same way you would change a team of ESTJs (Extrovert Sensing iNtuition Judgment), and you will be very frustrated. Lawyers also score unusually high on sense of urgency and very low on resiliency (they don’t bounce back easily from failure).

Despite the demonstrable differences in lawyer personalities, many change management professionals use the same approach for law departments as they use with other departments. The change managers run into stiff resistance, the change initiative doesn’t work, and the law department loses the opportunity to catch up with other departments in the corporation.

Those experienced with leading change in law departments and other legal services organizations have learned that whoever is leading the global change effort must consider how to work through these challenges. Fortunately, there is a path through this maze.

The 9 principles for successful global change management

By leveraging what those leaders in other industries have learned, legal industry leaders can chart paths to successful change across global organizations. As lawyers are learning in other practice areas, success comes from having a process and following it. The following 9 principles will help leaders build processes that incorporate the key elements of successful global change management.

1. Lawyers are different

Lawyers argue that what they do is different. This is a key argument they use to oppose changes such as using process improvement and technology. In reality, what lawyers do isn’t different, but lawyers themselves are somewhat different. Cross border change efforts should adjust for these quirks. My colleague, Lisa Damon, talks about meeting people where they are. Change leaders in law must meet lawyers where they are.

2. One size does not fit all

You can’t apply change management across countries with a single approach and expect it to work equally well everywhere. Before starting change, map out how change will roll out in each office, consider differences across jurisdictions, and find ways to use the differences to enhance the change process.

3. Don’t boil the ocean

There is Change and then there is change. Start with manageable chunks and then move up to big Change. Conventional wisdom is that you dive rather than step into the change waters. For lawyers trained to resist risk, diving into change means taking a big risk. By finding elements where change can start without introducing massive risk, you will win converts. Build on your successes and reduce change (risk) to manageable chunks.

4. Be specific, not just aspirational

Often change efforts start with some lofty aspiration: we must be more innovative, more responsive to clients, better aligned with corporate strategic objectives, etc. While noble sounding, these aspirational statements don’t provide much guidance. It is hard to rally the troops around something, especially when they probably believe they already do it. For lawyers, who prefer specific action steps, broad aspirations alone can be a signal to put up resistance. If you set specific goals based on real metrics, it is much easier for everyone to know where things currently stand and where you placed the goal line. Use aspirational goals to ground your changes in a theme that makes the change effort seem worthy.

5. When it comes to goals, think global, but act local

Change efforts frequently start with a broad imperative, such as every office will cut its budget by 10 percent. Not all offices are equal. For some, 10 percent might be easy, but for others 10 percent might be quite difficult. Set the overall goal for the department, but then enlist the offices in setting goals that work given their specific circumstances.

6. Be the same, except when you can be different

I sometimes refer to this as the child-rearing rule. When children are young, there are certain non-negotiable rules and certain rules that can be flexed. “Don’t run into the street” is a non-negotiable rule, but “don’t wear a plaid shirt with striped pants” can be flexed. If you try to force everyone to conform on everything, resistance will be much higher than if each office is given some latitude to make the change work within its culture. Each office should be allowed to make the program fit what its clients need.

7. Gamify

Lawyers love to compete. Most of us got to where we are by being competitive. While this can be seen as a negative, make it a positive. Use your change metrics as part of a game. Post the percentage change for each office on a periodic basis (and keep the periods short — days or weeks, not months). If everyone can see how everyone else is doing, no one will want to be left behind.

8. Communicate and then communicate more

If there is one rule of communication within an organization, it is that you can’t communicate too much. But remember, communication means a dialogue not a speech. In one organization, human resources counted at least 50 ways senior management communicated with employees each month and still employees complained management didn’t communicate enough. Today, communication is easy. Digital tools already used in large departments make it easy. Wikis, instant messaging, email groups, and other social media tools are available to everyone. Engage your team in a discussion and allow them to work together on smoothing over the rough spots. If they are engaged, they will work harder to make change successful.

9. Everyone can be a leader

Ever hear the saying “I’m from headquarters and I’m here to help”? Not surprisingly, many change initiatives start at headquarters. But, if you find ways to divide change into pieces and put a separate office in charge of each piece, you can make change a team sport. If one office complains that a certain change will be particularly difficult for it, then ask that office to take the lead and find a way to make it work for everyone. When the office does make it a success, and the odds are much higher it will since the office’s name is showing on the gamified leader board, then be quick to celebrate the success.

Legal services delivery organizations need to develop cultures comfortable with continuous change.

I have noted places where digital tools can help with the change process. In an article titled “Changing change management” McKinsey & Company gives many more examples of how digital tools can help with change. For a long time, law departments have approached change management as if we still lived in an analog world. We would wait until everyone got together for the annual department meeting and then we would roll out the change in a series of workshops. When it took a week for a letter to get across town, that approach worked. Today, by the time the law department rolls out change it is time to change again. Using digital tools can keep everyone working together across time zones and speed change diffusion.

Balancing change is easier when you have a process to keep things moving

Erich Brenn’s skill came from knowing when and how much effort to put into each pole to keep all the dishes spinning. Once you develop a process and stick to it, seemingly difficult tasks become much easier.

Now that change is constant in the legal industry, building change management skills is a valuable investment for lawyers. Getting many offices around the world to move in the same direction at the same time may seem like a daunting task. It isn’t as hard as it looks once everyone on the team is committed and moving in the same direction.