There's little question that our profession is changing. It's happening fast. The future of law will look very different from the past.
You're either sitting still and waiting for the wave to roll over you, or you're making plans and taking action in order to avoid drowning.
A Dose of Reality
Here's the reality for those of us trying not to drown:
- We work with other lawyers.
- Those lawyers are change resistant.
- Most of them have their heads in the sand.
- Most of them think tomorrow looks just like today.
- Most of them will run away from you and your firm, open their own offices, and do everything in their power to avoid change.
In other words, they're willing to go down with the ship rather than build a new one.
It's very difficult when you're the lawyer screaming out the warning about what's coming. The others look at you like you're crazy, gravitate toward each other, and push you away.
You're an irritant for them. You're pushing for change when what they want more than anything in the world is for everything to stay exactly as it is. What would be even better is if it could go back a bit to what it was.
You want them working remotely using an iPad. They want to be the senior partners we've all heard about who have their secretary print out their e-mails since they don't have a computer on their giant mahogany desk.
You Have a Choice to Make
You could give up. You could walk away and let them get run over. That's what some innovators in our profession have done. Innovative leaders at firms like Clearspire and Axiom concluded that the old firms couldn't evolve. They started anew.
But you, you're sticking around. You're committed to dragging your partners and associates into the future. Why? That's personal to you, and you have your reasons. Is that a good decision? That's left for another discussion on another day.
Whatever your motivation for driving change, it's slow going, and it's difficult.
The Challenges of Forward Movement
First, we had to identify the problem with our market. It's hard for our team to see the issues when we keep growing, increasing revenues, and increasing net income. Working effectively within a shrinking market hides lots of problems.
Once we knew there was a problem, we had to prepare to adapt. Most businesses fail to change. The upstarts usually lose to the incumbents. That's because they're stuck with old mind-sets and old cost structures. Changing anything results in resistance. However, we've got to try.
We got started. We overcame the old mind-set (as much as anyone can actually do that), and then we took on the cost structure. We attacked our expenses by making everything variable. Variable expenses give us the flexibility to adapt once we pin our hopes on a new business model.
- Outsourcing. For us, going lean meant outsourcing everything other than our core functions. Change is difficult, and a dramatically reduced headcount reeks of change.
- Real estate. Then we unloaded real estate overhead. Again, losing square footage is “in your face” change, and resistance is to be expected.
- The cloud. Of course, moving the phones and servers to the cloud resulted in a fair amount of ranting and raving by users.
- Compensation. Then we went hard at our compensation system. Variable pay across the board is a stressful but essential change. It's hard not to notice a change in our paychecks (even when it's positive), and for the “change is death” crowd, it's an adjustment.
Now, we're a lean, mean, fighting machine, and we're ready to commit to a new course of action.
Do we still have the same team we started with? Not entirely. We've lost some along the way. Change is more than some folks can handle, and they bet that we were wrong and that they could make the old way work for themselves. Of course, in this market, they were easily replaced.
But here we are, ready to move forward with a very lean business at fighting weight.
Where Do We Go from Here?
There aren't clear answers yet. But there are lots of questions to ask, and with a business not burdened by legacy systems, we're ready to experiment.
That's where we are now: experimenting. We've got a variety of projects underway, and we can afford to fund them and see what happens. We test, gather data, revise, and test again. That's what's happening.
How does it all feel for the people pushing the change?
It's exhausting, challenging, distressing, and exhilarating. It's horrible, and it's wonderful. It's miserable, and it's the best thing you've ever done.
Will it all work out? Well, if we knew with certainty that it would, then this wouldn't be so hard.
It might not all work out. Some experiments will fail. Some businesses won't make it.
If you're that leader trying to stay afloat, trying not to drown—or let your people drown—then what you get from me today is acknowledgment of your struggle. I know it's hard and you're doing your best.
I'm proud of you for your effort. You're doing the job that needs doing, and the odds are in your favor. I can't even begin to tell you how uplifting it is to get your e-mails and calls about your progress. You inspire me.
You may not always get the thanks you deserve from your team. You may not always be understood. You may find your decisions questioned, your successes minimized, and your failures emphasized. But you should know—in fact, you should be certain—that you're on the right track.