There has certainly been a lot in the media of late about changes in the legal profession. We talk about the “death of the billable hour,” the “unbundling” of services, and the more efficient delivery of legal services through “knowledge management.”
But change is hard. Take the billable hour. Think about all the systems, structures, cultural artifacts, training, and more that has gone into a model that maximizes the hours billed by law firm associates: bonuses (or job retention in an era of layoffs) tied to hours billed; pressure to track time in 6 minute increments and submit time report daily; rules about when/how meals or transportation can be billed back to the firm or client; and reports about “utilization rates.” Making lawyers more conscious of being efficient, rather than being “fully utilized” will take more than just saying it should be so, or even changing how law firms bill clients. Making clients better at articulating what they really need and what trade-offs they do or do not want to make will be essential if non-hours based fee arrangements are going to be sustainable. (Fixed fee models, for example, will simply not work if clients treat them as “all you can eat buffets.”)
Similarly, unbundling legal processes so that different tasks can be assigned to different resources requires that lawyers get better at delegating and supervising, at defining (and then monitoring) service levels and quality standards. We must also remember that what is unbundled must eventually be seamlessly integrated or the effort will introduce more risk than it will save time or money.
Successful knowledge management requires not only making sure that someone creates a cleansed version of a document and archives it so it can be reused, but then someone else must search for, find, and make use of the precedent to save time on their assignment. The first part requires a sense of obligation to capture knowledge for reuse by others and some discipline in how consistently and systematically the capture is done. The latter, requires getting lawyers to let go of the need to reinvent the wheel, and to refocus their time away from re-creating the basic terms in a standard form and toward the more interesting and complex issues of the client’s interest in the matter. Making use of knowledge management to achieve efficiencies in the delivery of legal services requires that lawyers have less of their professional identity tied up in drafting unique ways to describe a transaction, and get comfortable with using commodity components to craft a valuable outcome for a client.
All of which is to say, “pay attention to change management.” Without it, many of the initiatives underway today in law firms and in-house law departments will produce more gnashing of teeth than value. Letting go of entrenched habits, long-fueled by financial incentives, tradition, existing procedures, and identity issues, is hard work. Law firm and law department management would be well advised to treat change as an indispensible element of any such effort, and to ask tough questions about not only what policies are required, but what surrounding and supporting artifacts will turn those policies into real behavior change: Do we need new skills? Should we measure different things? What messages can we send directly? How can we reinforce those messages with our behavior? Are sticks, carrots, or both best suited to our culture? Who will adopt and champion these changes early on, and how will we then “spread the word”?
Only when we get serious about the management of change can we really expect the practice to change for good.