The disrupted lawyer: 5 steps to prepare for change

Change is coming and law firms need to be prepared, writes thought partner and executive coach Stuart J. Barnett.

(Opinion) --

We would rather be ruined than changed,                             
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
  • W. H. Auden - The Age of Anxiety (1948)
Disruption is the word de jour, and law firms are not immune.

There is talk of new non-pyramid structures, more fixed price agreements, shifting away from billable hours, the rise of general counsel and in-house teams, the encroachment of the big accountancy firms, artificial intelligence, out-sourcing, and the list goes on.

NewLaw is all the talk, and yet traditionally the legal profession is conservative and adapts to change glacially. That said, change is coming and no matter what your view is on the state of the profession and just how impacted the practice of law will be, the key is being prepared for disruption.

Five tips to make sure you are ready for disruption:
  1. Break the busyness-cycle
Nothing breeds complacency like success: why change what is working? And success in the law firm often means you are very busy, and busyness means there is little time to stop and reflect -- which can lead to becoming too focusing on the immediate, and not thinking long term. So stop. Take a breather to reflect on your practice. What is working? What isn’t? And how does this fit in with the wider industry?
  1. Get better acquainted with clients
Better understanding your clients is going to keep you ahead of the game. Disruption tends to be born out of dissatisfaction. And it’s not always just about cost; but when it is, you are more likely to achieve a better outcome if you have a good understanding of your client’s perspective.

So seek regular feedback from clients. Feedback is really just information the client already has or believes about you; it already exists. It’s only new to you. And it’s information that can be highly valuable if used to improve your service.
Sure, sometimes clients may simply want better quality work for a lower cost – isn’t that what we all want from a service? So have that difficult conversation about cost and quality. This is where innovation and flexibility start.
  1. Focus on building business relationships
Artificial Intelligence and robotics are good, but they haven’t yet got to the point where they can replace human relationships. In a world short on time and flooded with content, people’s bullsh*t detectors have never been on such high alert. Cutting through all the noise with genuine relationships built on trust can provide a significant competitive advantage.

Building relationships takes time. It has to be made a priority. The best way to achieve this is to make it part of your daily/weekly routine. It’s very easy to neglect relationships when you are really busy and then start trying to make amends when things are slow.

If you are naturally good at networking and building relationship, that’s great; if not, then you have to find a way that works for your personality. Play to your strengths, work around your weaknesses.
Two key aspects of building relationships are:
  • be genuinely interested – nothing quite builds a relationship than genuine interest. Be curious, ask good questions that enable the other person to amplify; which means
  • listen more – being caught in problem solving mode can mean being too quick to try and add value. Really active listening, requires being present in the moment, and being completely focused on the client and understanding their needs from their perspective.
And take both a macro and mico approach to your networking strategy:
  • be strategic about who you want to build business relationships with, making sure you align your practice focus and personal brand/online presence. Identify who can introduced you, and what networking events to attend.
  • get right down into what sort of conversations you are going to have, what your body language is saying, what you hope to achieve from the conversation, how you want to come across, and what you can do for the other person.
  1. Indulge in a little self-disruption
Change is often at its most painful when it is thrust upon us out of necessity. So getting ahead of the game and being open to change is essential.

Being the smartest lawyer in the room can be a hindrance – unfortunately (or fortunately depending upon where you sit in the smartness stakes) being very smart doesn’t of itself make you open to change. This is where emotional intelligence and self-awareness comes into play. It’s time to refocus on personal development.

Think about engaging an executive coach to help you brush up on those influencing and leadership skills – soft skills essential to a successful career regardless of the business model.

Senior partners too often overlook the use of executive coaches as remedial or for less experienced staff. But improvement doesn’t cease with seniority (or at least, it shouldn’t), so take the plunge and get objective support to discover ways to fine tune. 
  1. Be willing to fail
Finally, disruption means being prepared to take risks, and the traditional law firm career is inherently risk averse – where perfectionism is almost an essential ingredient to getting ahead. And perfectionism can leave very little room for risk, because risk means increasing the possibility of being wrong.

So shake it up a little, try some new things on the business development front, start small, step outside the traditional, mix it up. And be prepared for not everything you try to work.

By Stuart J. Barnett, thought partner and executive coach.

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