Don’t Underestimate Lawyers’ Resistance to Change

American based international law firm Seyfarth Shaw have been implementing Lean practices in an effort to increase efficiency and client value.

Chairman J Stephen Poor has noted that resistance to change from lawyers was a major factor to overcome. ABA Journal article here – it is well worth following the link to the original New York Times article. One interesting point is that clients were also resistant to change, many of them being lawyers themselves.

Resistance is always an issue in any change programme, unless there is some kind of crisis which clearly makes change necessary. Persistence and persuasion will be needed whatever the professional background of the people involved. Nobody wants to step outside their comfort zone without a good reason.

Are lawyers worse than anyone else? After all, some lawyers are quite radical and have created great change in the world.

There are reasons why this might be so. Firstly, the nature of the law in Common Law jurisdictions involves precedent, the way things have been done before. Secondly, presenting documents in the way that others expect to see them makes them effective – again, “this is the way things are done.” Thirdly, changes in the law are beyond an individual lawyer’s scope – another professional may be able to devise an innovative solution to a problem. Lastly, law firms tend to be long lived. I used to work for a firm, part of which was founded in 1790 (which looked good on a photocopier lease). One reason is the partnership model, which limited capital raising power (no limited liability or external shareholders) and made owners risk averse.

And lawyers are trained to argue their case, and will do so given half an opportunity. Winning the argument can become more important than being right.

So for any change programme in your firm, make sure that those at the top buy into it, and are prepared to put in the energy necessary to get it done.