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June 24, 2015

How to change law firm culture (Part 4 of 5)

 By Jim Hassett and Tom Clay


In addition to the difficulties with change management described earlier in this series, at law firms there is an additional challenge: the lack of strong central authority leads to a lack of accountability. It’s a lot easier to get things done when someone is in charge; someone who can penalize people if they fail to execute. The non-hierarchical structure of most firms makes it very difficult to hold people accountable.

In change efforts for complex situations like the evolving marketplace lawyers now face, Kotter and Cohen found that successful managers relied on the sequence SEE-FEEL-CHANGE. Instead of trying to appeal to the rational mind, they focused on making an emotional connection – which is exactly what Bilzin Sumberg did as it gradually expanded successful LPM initiatives to create a new LPM-based culture.

It would be nice to be able to report that, once a majority of Bilzin’s partners had completed their coaching, their LPM work was done. In fact, it was just beginning.

It is true that the firm’s clients quickly saw significant benefits in reduced costs and greater responsiveness, which in turn led to new business. But when LegalBizDev interviewed firm leaders for follow-up reports over the next few years, they consistently used phrases like “baby steps,” “infancy stage,” and “aspirational rather than obligatory” to describe the firm’s current use of LPM. 

Well, they should see the other guys! We spend our lives looking behind the curtain at a wide variety of law firms as we work with them to increase efficiency. Many firms have individual lawyers or practice groups that are quite advanced in LPM but, in our opinion, there is unfortunately not a single firm on the planet that can say that LPM has truly taken hold among all its lawyers.

There are dozens of firms that have put out more press releases than Bilzin announcing their LPM success. But in our experience, none has achieved behavior change more quickly or more cost effectively than Bilzin. LPM aims to change habits that have been reinforced over decades, and that kind of culture change will always occur one small step at a time. 

According to Paul VanderMeer, Bilzin’s director of knowledge management, “The more successes we have gotten the more converts we obtained, and the more that LPM has permanently changed the way we do business.”

One of the most important steps that Bilzin took to monitor and sustain progress was the formation of an LPM committee chaired by Michelle Weber, the firm’s chief operating officer. Practice group leaders are required to report regularly to the committee and to the managing partner about how they are applying LPM and what works best.

“We’re following this so tightly because it’s an enormous priority,” says Weber. The result is that best practices are spreading. Many changes have been quite simple but still extremely effective. For example, she noted that:

As matters come in, we routinely have a discussion at the outset with all team members, including paralegals, so that everybody understands what the scope is. At the same time, we discuss the task codes that everyone’s going to use so we don’t have major problems with consistency later.

Al Dotson, who was one of the three lawyers in the initial pilot test of LPM coaching, recently said he is now using LPM principles “in just about every matter that I have here. These principles are flexible and important enough to apply to nearly everything that I do.” For example:

I routinely set up non-billable team meetings to ascertain the status of the work at any given stage to avoid duplication of effort, to identify issues sooner rather than later, and to communicate quickly with the client if there are any issues. This is done early and frequently throughout the project.

A number of other proven tactics for changing behavior have also accelerated success at Bilzin Sumberg and other of our clients. When LPM first became popular around 2009, some firms experimented with training every lawyer in the firm in the hope of spreading innovation like jam across the entire firm at once. It is a common approach among firms and is part of the “CLE syndrome” that’s especially pervasive among professional development directors. It allows the firm to check a box and put out a press release proclaiming success.

However, from a broad behavior change point of view, almost all these training programs were failures. Typically a few lawyers changed their approach but the vast majority just finished the class and went back to work the way they always had. As the managing partner of one firm that invested in extensive LPM training put it:

Project management will probably have the longest-term positive impact but it’s been the biggest challenge, because when busy lawyers start scrambling around, the inefficiency creeps right up.

It is much more effective to start by identifying a small group of lawyers who are most likely to be early adopters, by virtue of both the challenges they face (e.g., those who must manage fixed fee matters) and their personal openness to change.

The “tone at the top” is also extremely important. Enthusiastic support for LPM from senior management is very helpful in assuring acceptance. We have seen some firms succeed with a “bottom-up” effort that spreads LPM from the trenches with only lukewarm leadership support. But things go much faster if leaders are enthusiastic enough about LPM to keep pushing the effort past the inevitable speed bumps.

You may want to take a look at the third edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide for additional examples of how proven tactics from the change management literature can be applied to law firms. In terms of what we’re talking about here, the most important point is simply that law firm cultures can be changed relatively quickly if you carefully apply proven principles from other professions.


A slightly edited version of this series was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Of Counsel: The Legal and Management Report by Aspen publishers.  A pdf of that complete article “Strategies to Successfully Change Law Firm Culture: The Example of Legal Project Management” can be downloaded from our web page.



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