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August 18, 2010

Overcoming resistance to change (Part 3): Raising the urgency level

Last week I wrote about how short-term wins can help to promote change in law firms.

In the book Leading Change, John Kotter also talks about the value of “raising the urgency level,” and even provides a table listing nine ways to do this in the corporate world (p. 44).  While some would not work in the legal world, in my opinion, every law firm leader would be wise to focus on one key item from Kotter’s list: talk to unhappy clients and publicize the results.

I’ve written before about the Lake Wobegon effect, named after Garrison Keilor’s fictional community where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”  Several surveys have shown how this applies to lawyers.  In my favorite, Inside Counsel magazine asked lawyers to grade their overall performance with clients as A, B, C, D, or F.  43% of the lawyers thought they were earning an A.  But when they asked clients the same question, in fact only 17% earned As. In other words, most lawyers significantly overrated their performance.

If lawyers spent more time understanding how clients really feel, they would have a much better chance of protecting client relationships in troubled times and expanding them when things improve.  Not to mention the fact that listening to clients is a powerful technique for generating new business

A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts about how to conduct client satisfaction interviews.  In the current environment, law firm leaders should also be thinking about client dissatisfaction interviews: spending time with clients who have left, or who are in danger of leaving, the firm.

Relationship partners may prefer not to think about the clients who have left.  If they do talk to them, they may try too hard to win work back or be defensive about what went wrong.  Therefore, I believe such interviews would best be conducted by disinterested parties, ideally a very senior partner in the firm, thus showing clients how serious the firm is about understanding any issues.  And then they need to find a way to communicate what they found to others, without embarrassing or annoying the partner who lost the client.  This won’t be easy.

But the potential payoff is understanding how unhappy clients have perceived your service and dealing with any underlying issues before other clients leave.  Partners who continue to deny that the legal world is changing, or who think “our firm is different,” may have their eyes opened by hearing exactly what their own clients are saying about them.

In their discussion of urgency in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath quote a Harvard Business School Review paper which argues that “In the absence of a dire threat, employees will keep doing what they’ve always done (p. 119).”  This quote reminded me of Richard Susskind’s comment about law firm conservatism in the book The End of Lawyers: “It is not easy to convince a group of millionaires...that their business model is wrong.” 

But Susskind wrote those words before the economic downturn.  And most law firm leaders believe that even if the economy recovers completely, legal changes are here to stay.  In a recent survey of law firm chairmen and managing partners, only 4% said that the changes to the legal profession in 2009 were “an anomaly.”  69% said that the 2009 economy was “an accelerator of past legal trends,” and the remaining 27% saw 2009 events as “a game changer that has changed the legal profession.” 

If you agree that the legal world has changed forever, maybe this cloud can turn out to have a silver lining.  If you focus clearly on value and on meeting client needs before your competitors do, you could end up expanding your book of business.  As Euripides noted, “There is in the worst of fortune the best of chances for a happy change.”


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