CM Feature Communications and Organizational Management

How to Usher in Change at Your Law Firm (and Not Scare Staff)

Reading the room and starting slowly can go a long way to making sure changes at your firm run smoothly.

Artificial intelligence. Hybrid work arrangements. Upgrades to software programs. Innovative recruiting strategies. Shifts in what’s expected in the workplace and for career development. 

Phillip M. Perry

Changes like these are commonplace and on an accelerated path at law firms. And while new ways of doing business may benefit law firm operations, getting the stamp of approval from the powers-that-be can feel like slogging through molasses. Lawyers, after all, have a reputation for resisting change.

Attorneys are not alone in looking askance at new initiatives. “Most people hate change,” says Elise Powers, Chief Executive Officer of Eleview Consulting. “Even if a new way of doing something is an improvement, fear of the unknown keeps us wanting to preserve the status quo. And it just requires more energy for us to pivot when things don’t go perfectly the first time.”

Maybe a risk-averse mindset is common to all humanity, but it seems to be doubly so in the legal profession. That makes sense, given the background of attorneys. “Take a step back and understand where lawyers are coming from,” says Daniel J. McCormack, CLM, MBA, ACC, Chief Executive Officer of Dan McCormack & Associates LLC, and a member of ALA’s Professional Development Advisory Committee. “Their entire education and career have been an in-depth progression based on historic facts. They have to look at everything and verify by double and triple checking. And that’s how they make all their decisions for their clients.”

It follows, then, that anyone who walks in and says, “I want to change this,’’ needs to have a cogent argument lined up.

Given their need to maximize return on their time, attorneys can also be particularly wary of any new initiative that threatens to commandeer their daily schedule. This is often the case, for example, with new data processing software.

“A change in technology can require more time and energy up front to do tasks because of the need to learn new routines,” says Powers. “Even if attorneys recognize the improvements inherent in a new way of doing things, many will resist a learning process that can be a bit cumbersome or burdensome.”

The reliance on precedent that is common to the legal profession can also contribute to an elevation of the value of traditional procedures, pointed out Powers. “Attorneys rely on what has been decided in the past as a guide for the future. They rely on this mindset for their practice to be successful.”

The partnership structure at many firms can also contribute to change resistance. Requiring more than one person to sign off on an operational modification can slow down the approval process. “To get anyone to agree on anything these days is a Herculean task,” says Powers. “Many times, it's just easier to maintain the inertia of whatever you have been doing rather than to rally the troops around something new.”

“Whenever change occurs, the legal administrator has to be attentive to how people are thinking, feeling and behaving in response. People will fight change because they feel threatened and that are somehow losing out.”

Perhaps the most important reason of all, however, is a tendency for lawyers to hold back from any modifications in firm operations unless they are convinced of a clear client benefit. “When you think about what attorneys are paid to do, it is to protect their clients from anything that can go wrong,” says Powers. “As a result, attorneys are sensitive to the potential risk that can go along with any proposed change.”

Indeed, there is also the possibility that visible modifications in a firm’s operating procedures alarm the client base. “What if clients push back on a change when it is introduced?” says Powers. “Attorneys will resist anything that may rock the boat when it comes to client perceptions.” This concern will be all the greater when individual attorneys have little control over how a proposed change will roll out firmwide.


One thing is clear: There’s more change ahead for the legal industry. Artificial intelligence, in particular, may well bring about new ways of conducting research, predicting case outcomes and even suggesting personalized services based on client histories.

So how can a legal management professional develop the skills required to move the needle when conditions call for new ways of doing business? The first step is to understand the emotional environment that surrounds the change dynamic.

“Whenever change occurs, the legal administrator has to be attentive to how people are thinking, feeling and behaving in response,” says McCormack. “People will fight change because they feel threatened and that they are somehow losing out.”

Legal management professionals must develop the skills to convert the change scenario from win-lose to win-win. “By listening to people, validating their concerns, explaining the new process, and speaking to the available resources and how they themselves have helped the organization adjust to change in the past, they will start to see the positive outcome of the proposed change,” says McCormack.

Specifically, McCormack suggests that legal management professionals become skilled at shepherding change-resistant people through this four-step process:

  1. The Carbolic Stage: “In the initial stage there is a lot of negative energy in the form of self-doubt,” says McCormack. “You have to recognize it and help people move through it.”
  2. The Defiant Stage: “Even though you have talked with people, they’re still resenting and fighting the change which they see in win-lose terms.”
  3. Reconciliation: “People start to align with your goals as you provide more clarity and education about the proposed change. At this point, they become more open-minded and willing to work with you.”
  4. Acceptance: “Finally, people make a very strong commitment to the change and are willing to move forward.”


Before navigating their wards through the four-step change process, wise administrators will formulate the rationale for the proposed change. “Anytime there’s a change, people want to know why something is being disturbed that seemed to be working just fine,” says Powers. “So the first step is to provide an explanation that demonstrates how the change will benefit everyone.”

The “why” effort needs to be backed up with the “what.” And that means presenting material that supports the proposed beneficial results of the change. Given the process and detail orientation of many attorneys, legal management professionals need to be able to address concerns such as why the timing has been chosen, what the change means for operations and how individuals will be impacted.

“Often, attorneys are not given sufficient information to support a proposed change,” says McCormack. “That's probably the primary reason why firms have a reputation for being slow on the pickup.”

“I’m a fan of trialing out something, of introducing a major change to a small group of attorneys or professional staff in the form of a pilot program that lasts perhaps two weeks or a month. The idea is to get their input on how they felt about the process, how it went, then tweak it to make improvements before rolling it out firmwide.”

While not everyone will require the same level of detail about a proposed change, it has to be available for those who do. “Let people opt in to the amount of explanation they want,” adds Powers. “Consider offering a webinar or a town hall forum where people can log in, learn about a program and ask questions.”

As noted above, law firms are driven by client service. Presenting change in a way that reflects that imperative will go a long way toward better reception of new initiatives. “It’s not just their immediate client they are concerned about, but all of their clients,” says McCormack. “If a proposed change will negatively impact service levels, they will not allow the change to go through.”

The successful legal management professional needs to develop a reputation for clear and precise communication of proposals that will enhance the level of service being provided to clients, says McCormack. Successful change proposals answer these three questions:

  • What happens to the immediate client if the firm doesn’t make this change?
  • What happens to the immediate client if the firm does make this change?
  • What happens to all clients if the firm makes this change?


Rome wasn’t built in a day. Legal management professionals can ease the path for a change by taking the whole process slowly.

“I’m a fan of trialing out something, of introducing a major change to a small group of attorneys or professional staff in the form of a pilot program that lasts perhaps two weeks or a month,” says Powers. “The idea is to get their input on how they felt about the process, how it went, then tweak it to make improvements before rolling it out firmwide.”

This kind of participatory dynamic allows people to invest in the change by providing feedback on what works and what doesn’t. A trial program can also encourage pilot group participants to be ambassadors for the change, validating and normalizing it for their colleagues by talking about it as a peer. “People like to feel they have contributed,” says Powers. “That feeling can help facilitate acceptance of a new program.”

Over the long term, legal management professionals can cultivate a law firm with forward-looking change culture by developing the emotional intelligence required to introduce change. “You need to be on your toes in creating a collaborative, open environment that will help soften the message when change happens,” says McCormack. “There’s a constant need for clear communication, and for consistently delivering a message in line with the overriding vision of client service.”

Why is change such a tough thing to manage in firms? We delve into that question in a recent episode of Legal Management Talk. Catherine Alman MacDonagh, JD, the Founder of Legal Lean Sigma Institute and a member of ALA’s Professional Development Advisory Committee, discusses steps for managing change, the importance of creating small change “wins,” how to avoid change burnout and more. Tune in wherever you listen to your podcasts or watch us (and subscribe!) on YouTube