Barely a day goes by without seeing a news report, an article or a blog noting the struggles of a law firm or the legal services industry in general. A recent piece by Ron Friedman examines the possibility that more law firms will be eliminated. George Beaton’s The Rise and Rise of the NewLaw Business Model looks at the NewLaw business model and how it differs from the traditional BigLaw business model. Besides providing an interesting study in contrasts, he notes the significant growth of Axiom and other adopters of the NewLaw business model. Above the Law’s Joe Patrice provides his take on data suggesting that some work is moving away from Big Law. Many law firms are being impacted by this industry turbulence and come to the realization that the status quo is not sustainable. A law firm whose management recognizes that change in the marketplace requires change within is a law firm in transition.
When a law firm begins to show signs of transition, many thoughts about the best way to address change will run through the mind of leadership. Among any group of law firms, the stage of transition presented will vary depending on the severity of the market stress experienced and the time that such stress is recognized. Whenever a firm is in transition, some fundamental steps can be taken to help the process, and ease the pain of change.
The degree to which dramatic action is required largely depends on how early signs of transition is recognized. But no matter where in the continuum transition is first observed, certain basic steps will pave the way for developing a sound action plan.
When signs of transition surface, a wise leader does the following:
Reaches Out to the Firm’s Most Valuable Assets (People). A successful law firm enjoys its success only if its most valuable lawyers are engaged and feel a part of the firm. Immediately reaching out to your valuable assets (don’t be too fast to think that lawyers “with the numbers” are your only valuable assets) is critical. Not only will doing so show leadership; it indicates that input is valued — and this engages others in the process.
Listens to What Is Said. Talking to your people should not be viewed as a formality. Rather, approach conversations as fact-finding missions to understand how others view the transitional issues. You might just learn something that is obvious to everyone but the management team.
Reviews the Trends and Understands the Reasons. When canvassing the troops, you may hear disparate suggestions/complaints that must be evaluated. The articulated challenge(s) may be something experienced in the industry in general, such as client desire to reorient its legal spend or represent slippage in legal work quality, a possibility advanced by Mark Hermann. Although you may hear from your lawyers many different reasons, you have to cut through the noise. Not every issue identified is material. Consequently, a wise leader engages in a triage of sorts, recognizing that focus on the essential issues is a must. The critical causes that create the transitional concern tend to germinate over time and only manifest themselves after they have festered for a while. Go back and try to reconstruct the trends (that may not have been recognized previously) and understand their genesis.
Identifies Realistic Remedial Steps and Makes Them The Plan. Using what you have learned, develop a plan that is realistic in terms of action steps and time for implementation. An action plan that shoots for the moon is destined for failure. A response that loses sight of your core values will face many obstacles. Just because mergers are the solution for other firms or another firm is re-tooling its attorney base, other firms’ solutions may not suit your firm. You may only have one shot. Make it count.
Communicates The Plan and Gets Buy-In. Get out to your people and let them know the likely plan and get feedback. If the feedback requires fine-tuning for the plan, do so, but then get buy-in from the masses. Make it their plan and your chances of success go up exponentially.
When facing transition, “knowing” your firm and feeling its pulse is vital. These steps help you get there. What steps would you take if your firm were facing transition?