Lawyers and Cookies

For sustainable change, tame the (Cookie) Monster inside


As early as 2003, Harvard Business Review reported the often-cited statistic that 70% of change initiatives fail. A decade later, a new study by Towers Watson gives a slightly more nuanced, but even less encouraging, view: 55% of change management meet “initial objectives,” but only 25% result in long-term success.

In any industry, accomplishing true structural change requires energy and long-term commitment. Intellectually, we understand the imperative to modify our organizations. We look at statistics, listen to pundits and become rationally convinced that we must be different. We review meticulous business cases and proposals for change initiatives, and we invest time, money, and effort into seemingly well-grounded projects.

Yet, sustainable change eludes most of us — particularly within legal services. I wrote recently in a Bloomberg BigLaw article about the continuing cognitive dissonance in legal services. While I posed some guesses as to possible causes for that cognitive dissonance, I think the general topic of change management within legal organizations merits some discussion.

There are a whole series of challenges specific to driving change in an organization full of lawyers. Where does it begin, however? I think it starts with an honest answer by the leaders of the organization to a simple question: do you really want to change?

Acknowledge the inner conflict.

Chip Heath, author of “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Harddescribed this disconnect as follows:

The core idea is that there are two sides to the way human beings think about any issue. There’s the rational, analytical, problem-solving side of our brains which may think, “I need to eat less.” But there’s an emotional side that’s addicted to impulse or comfortable routines, and that side wants a cookie.

Heath’s basic premise — that there are conflicting motivations within each of us — is intuitive enough. The “rational, analytical, problem-solving side” is the one that speaks when 51% of adult Americans say they want to lose weight and 69% of adult American smokers report they want to kick the habit permanently.

The emotional side, “addicted to impulse or comfortable routines,” might not speak as clearly or as loudly. Still, we hear its voice in the negative space. Of the 51% who want to lose weight, more than half admit they are not seriously trying. Of the 69% who want to quit smoking, less than two-thirds managed to stop for more than one day.

Change is hard.

Organizations are made up of people. Rationally, we know the call for efficiency represents the “new normal” in legal services. Rationally, we know we should adapt to the new landscape. Deep down, though, we feel the powerful pull of “comforting routines.” Often unacknowledged and unexamined, the “emotional” side of our brain has enormous capacity to undermine our intellectual commitment to a new and improved organization.

Subconsciously, we feed the cognitive dissonance within ourselves in numerous ways. We rationalize our resistance to change: after all, the legal services market is a system that has worked extremely well for virtually everyone for a very long period of time. Or we become persnickety about how exactly we might pursue the desired change: how do we know this particular change initiative will work? Or we convince ourselves that what we are doing is, in fact, “change” or “innovation” even though we objectively know we need to do more.

Our intellect deals in big ideas and in abstractions.

Whether it’s “efficiency” at an organizational level or “a healthy lifestyle” at an individual level, these abstractions usually leave too much room for interpretation. We rarely have time or energy to grapple with those big ideas when we make small, tangible choices. We separate our beliefs from the immediate, impulsive (and therefore, unconsidered) habits that run counter to those beliefs: of course, I want to be in better health, but I always have a cookie after lunch.

I really, really want that cookie.

Desire is self-motivated, not externally imposed.

I return to the simple question I posed above: do you really want to change?

Note I did not ask whether you agree with the pundits, the industry surveys, and the thought leaders in our profession. The rational case for change will be cold comfort when you are confronted with the stresses of transformation. You are the one who will be tackling the difficult pick-and-shovel work demanded by change. You are the one who will ask others to trade a tolerable, comfortable status quo for an uncertain future. You are the one who will face resistance and criticism. You are the one who will take the risks. So the question remains: do you really want to change?

In a way, we at Seyfarth were fortunate in our experience: we grappled with this question at a time and place that forced us to arrive at an answer that we could truly own. Ten years ago — prior to the Great Recession — we were in a period where law firms made more profits by increasing the price of their services without necessarily raising the value of those services. Back in those days, there was less interest in broad, industry-wide change, but there was also less noise about the need for it. We were not prompted by our clients or peers or competitors to seek a different path. In looking at the paradigm, however, we could not get away from the idea that there had to be a better way; that the industry simply could not be exempt from the variables affecting other business segments.

Thus, our change journey began with self-motivated conviction.

Fast forward a decade, and we find a very different world. Disruption and innovation are bywords, and the external pressures to change are mounting. The industry’s continuing failure to address the efficiency challenge has resulted in an enormous, and still-increasing, value gap. As mentioned in prior essays, by “value gap,” I mean the gap between the value law firms perceive they are delivering and the value clients perceive they are receiving.

That gap is now being filled by new entrants to the market — the Axioms and Riverviews, legal process outsourcers in various parts of the world, legal tech startups and other alternative business models. The changes outside the US in ownership models of law firms have begun to reshape the industry both around the world and within the US. These add a new dimension to the external pressures driving change initiatives in traditional legal organizations.

Looking at your legal department or law firm now, should you be dissatisfied with the current business model? For some legal departments and a few law firms, the answer clearly is no. But for most of us in legal services, the answer should be an emphatic yes. The external pressures — and the rational case for change — continue to mount as the clarion call for change resounds through the profession. In the face of headlines like “Yes, Big Law Really is Dying,” it’s difficult not to feel a twinge of anxiety (if not a flood of outright panic).

And still, the question remains: do you really want to change?

Fear is not a sustainable motivator. Seek inspiration instead.

In recent years, I have met with many of the people leading the various new ventures in law. One common characteristic that I have noticed among this group is a genuine passion for their work, far beyond a murmur of dissatisfaction with the status quo. They are not driven by fear or by the pressure to keep up with the competition. They are not getting up each morning aiming to disrupt something that day. Instead, they are determined to solve a specific problem — and they are willing to do whatever it takes — take personal risks, cross the lines, question accepted norms, and go back to the drawing board — to find that solution.

Not only does this group have conviction that a better way must exist, they also exhibit an enduring optimism that they can find or make that better way. Does this mean that they will be successful? Nope. Does it mean that they have the right business model or are hitting the right need in the market? Not necessarily.

Conviction and optimism do not guarantee success. However, the sincere belief that their work matters — the belief that their work has the capacity for lasting impact — is a critical starting point. The absence of that belief cannot be overcome — and the energy, resilience, grit and resourcefulness that spring from that belief cannot be faked.

Find an authentic desire for change — with routines that reinforce that desire.

For us, the critical emotional anchor driving our passion was the recognition that there must be a better way for our clients. While far from an earthshaking insight in and of itself, it hit upon an authentic note in our history and culture. An entire generation of our lawyers could recall the countless times we’d heard from Lee Shaw, one of our founding partners, that “what is good for our clients is good for our business.” In Lee’s simple turn of phrase, we found deeper wisdom — a true commitment to help, a willingness to let the client’s success define our own in every undertaking, and a desire to prove our partnership every day by seeking real alignment of our interests with our clients’ interests.

A focus on our clients’ success was a part of our identity that we could re-ignite, one that we found intensely motivating. Turning that prism from looking inward to focusing outward made all the difference. But it wasn’t enough to repeat Lee’s emphatic words, to agree with them rationally or to believe in them sincerely — we had to live by them. In turn, that meant developing client-focused mechanisms that could become “comforting routines” and building moments of positive reinforcements into workflows. From the outset, we sought to create consistency, not more dissonance, across our lofty goals and our day-to-day habits.

We found ways to operationalize and institutionalize client focus — to establish habits and routines that were consistent with our desire for change.

For us, the voice of the client is not a generalized abstraction; in engagements and change initiatives, client perspectives are made as tangible and concrete as possible.

We invite key clients to our annual partner meetings to share their current challenges and most pressing concerns. At the outset of key engagements, a voice of the client interview is conducted, documented, and shared across the entire client service team. We encourage engagement teams to create client-facing touch points for associates and staff. We attempt to articulate the client’s success factors and desired outcomes as specifically as possible and do our best to align our own performance metrics to those of our clients. And we value transparency because it supports and facilitates a universal and constant focus on the client experience.

I have seen the same dynamic play out with law departments that have successfully transformed the way in which they deliver services to their internal clients. Consistently, the most successful efforts are driven by a desire to prove true partnership with the core business. Note that the sincere desire to prove partnership goes far beyond reducing spend and cutting costs for the department — it implies a proactive interest in understanding the needs of the core business and aligning the department’s operations and objectives along those lines. The true desire to prove partnership means an affirmative desire to maximize the strategic value of services provided. Consistently, that desire to prove partnership is deeply embedded in the structure, execution, and messaging of their change initiatives.

In short, the struggle for sustainable change requires winning hearts as well as minds. Both sides of your brain must agree on what is desired, and ambitious aspirations must be supported by habits and routines.

The real battle for change is fought in the small decisions.

So, put that cookie down.


A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.