Change management is always tricky.

It’s one thing to make a change, but quite another to convince people to change – especially lawyers in the traditionally change-averse legal profession. We reached out to Jennifer Emery, author of Leading for Organisational Change: Building Purpose, Motivation and Belonging, to discuss how legal teams, lawyers and general counsels can become better at change management and harness the power of change to innovate and be the best they can be.

Interview with Jennifer Emery:

Q1. Tell us about yourself and your work at Arup

JE: I am currently in a new role at Arup as their Global Leader for People and Culture. This is a new departure for me after almost 20 years in law, originally as a lawyer and then on the strategy and business side of law firms and most recently, leading the merger and integration team at CMS, Nabarro and Olswang. Off the back of that merger, I made a scary mid-career leap into the designing, engineering and architecture sector. In lots of respects, it’s very similar to law, and in lots of other respects, it’s very different.

My brief at Arup is to take what is already a purpose-led, values-driven top quality firm and help it take the next step in its evolution. Arup is now 75 years old, it started small, it’s built on networks and relationships and we now have 16,000 people across 80 offices worldwide. I’m aiming at delivering a vision of the way forward by the end of this calendar year but as always, and it’s true for law firms too, the real challenge will be in the execution of the transformation and that will take three to five years.

Q2. How can legal team leaders empower lawyers who traditionally value autonomy?

JE: In my book on organisational change, I refer to the concept of empowerment and how people like to have a say in how things are done. Given that lawyers value autonomy, have opinions and are articulate about these opinions, doing anything other than seeking to empower them is much harder and is destined to fail. In the context of change, it doesn’t work well to see people as passive recipients, victims almost, of a process of change. They will respond much better if they understand the rationale behind something and if they feel involved so that they feel that they are making a meaningful contribution.

For lawyers, it’s very important to make the intellectual case for what you are doing. Lawyers are very uncomfortable with ambiguity, as are we all, but lawyers more than most. In any change project, give as much certainty as you can and be as clear as you can about what we do know. When you’ve done that, that’s where the autonomous traits of lawyers kick in. Being clear about parameters, and then giving lawyers the maximum possible chance to get involved and shape the outcome is what gets them on board.

Practical examples:

  • At macro-scale, one of the success factors behind the relatively smooth delivery of the CMS merger smoothly was that everyone was crystal clear about the rationale and commercial purpose of what we were doing. It was different for all three parties but all three groups of people knew what we were doing and why.
  • At a more detailed level underneath that, you may be making changes to how billing processes work, for example, or trying to align different groups of people onto a single grade structure. Make it clear that various options were considered and that this is why your proposed approach is the best option for now, and here is what we might do in the future. Be transparent. The mistake that we make sometimes is that we are in such a hurry that we present people with a fait accompli rather than being willing to share the insights. That’s disempowering and irritating for people.

This sort of openness and transparency is particularly important with lawyers because they can tend to assume that you haven’t done the thinking until proven otherwise. We are trained as lawyers to find an argument, to catch the loophole and the reason why something might not work. If you are willing to show that lawyers on your team that you have applied thought and rigour, and that while the option you’re presenting might not be the perfect one, on balance it’s the best, then you’ve got a winning argument. Lawyers will go with that, rather than being presented with a statement that they think has had no thought applied to it.

Q3. Is the fact that lawyers are notoriously risk-adverse impacting the change process?

JE: Everybody has to some extent adverse reactions when we are faced with change because it’s how our brains are wired. If something is unknown, we perceive it as a threat – we have the same neurological response as if we were being chased by a tiger! For lawyers, that tendency is hard-wired in and substantiated by their training. When we are acting for clients, we are effectively minimising risk for them. But being risk-adverse is good. It brings rigour and requires people who are making the case for change to be robust.

Q4. How do you deal with conflict when changing a legal team?

JE: There’s a degree of unrest and uncertainty that comes simply by virtue of changing. In some contexts, that can manifest itself for some people as being defensive and you can end up with a bit of conflict that way. It helps to understand what is going on for individuals and for that, there’s a neurological model developed by David Rock called the SCARF model that I often refer back to:

  • S stands for status. Something’s happening and the person feels that they are not on secure ground anymore. It can be anything like a change of technology that makes the person feel that they are losing some standing in the eyes of others.
  • C stands for confidence or certainty.
  • A stands for autonomy. “I used to do things my way and now you’re telling me to do things another way. I don’t like that.”
  • R stands for relationship. In the case of a merger, you may be threatening the close working relationship of people who have been together for years or you may be asking them to work for new people.
  • F stands for fairness. Are you dealing equitably with everybody?

On dealing with conflict on a one to one basis, understanding where people are coming from, what may be happening for them on a human level, will help you address those concerns better.

More generally, in the case of conflict, leaders need to show that they can listen and allow people to explain what they are cross about. Leaders need to be a human being in the room and empathise with their team members. Understanding where the pain points are is a great start. There’s a good chance you will be able to make little changes, little course adjustments, that can make a lot of difference. Just as lawyers do for a living, seek to reach compromise.

Last but not least, let’s not forget the power of storytelling in change management for legal teams. It’s a mechanism that’s really helpful with lawyers. Stories work differently in our brains to fact. You are 22 times more likely to remember a story than fact. A lot of what I was doing during the merger was telling stories, finding people’s stories. That methodology of change, showing lawyers the story of a peer that they respect and that really works – it’s a different sort of sense-making and can help to take the heat out of a situation.

Q5. How can general counsels help their team build skills for innovation and agility?

JE: There’s no single factor that delivers agility. I think about a gymnast – to be truly agile, you need a really strong spine, and then you need to discard all the extraneous stuff that weighs you down. For a legal team, your purpose is that spine, along with the core systems and processes you absolutely need to keep yourself on track. Ask yourself these questions.

  • What is it that you are changing and why?
  • What are we doing here?
  • What is the purpose of the legal team in the organisation?
  • What must we do time and time again that adds value?
  • What are the robust processes that we need to keep everything on track?

Beyond that, the case is for shedding as much as you can so that you can remain sleek and agile.

Beyond that, once you’re agile and future-fit, fostering active innovation, has a lot has to do with curiosity, bravery, and ability to connect with other people. Read about tech and invest in your own learning. My favourite current read for inspiration is

Practical example:

  • We always think that innovation is something huge but simple changes, thinking from the client’s perspective, thinking about the user design might make what you are currently doing even better.
  • At CMS, somebody came up with the idea to embed tiny animated YouTube videos in the auto signatures in Scotland because the methodology for executing legal documents is different in Scotland from what it is in England. Now the messages read, “Please find attached the documents that need to be executed. Please click here for a link to a short video explaining how to do it.” Adding video tutorials was one person’s idea over their lunch.

Q6. How do you build cohesion across teams while encouraging diversity?

JE: To solve complex problems, you need a huge diversity of opinions, backgrounds, perspectives and skills to come up with the best solution, but that only works if you’ve created a culture where everybody feels at home and everybody feels that they can participate to their best. You need a sense of inclusion.

In part, that comes with uniting people around a common purpose. We may all be different but we are all working towards a common goal and this creates a sense of belonging. However, there’s also a big interpersonal challenge there. You do need to invest time in knowing your team members well personally, there’s no shortcut, that’s how trust is built. The people in your team also need to have the same experience with each other.

Especially in remote teams, I’m increasingly really fond of doing something more structured such as using a strength inventory psychometric online tool to show the whole team who has what strengths. It will show how we might all work together and what everybody is good at. It gives a chance to people to work across silos together. It helps people appreciate each other and harvest the benefits of diversity.

Q7. How will tech impact the future of work for the legal profession?

JE: We spend a lot of time talking about the particular tools and about which bits of the lawyer’s job these tools are going to do for us. The market is still settling around what it wants but the reality is that lots of these tools will help lawyers do what has always been the most boring bits of their job. That’s a good thing.

The much more interesting and exciting part of the discussion is around what does that free lawyers up to do that AI cannot do?

  • Making fine judgments.
  • Balancing competing priorities.
  • Calls which require discretion.
  • Building relationships with clients.
  • Understanding what a good outcome is for clients.

How do we interface between being a lawyer and the machine and crucially, what do we do with the goldmine of data that we have? Lawyers don’t talk enough about the upsides of having access to data. How do you interrogate data to help support better decision making? That’s exciting – you can use that data to give better advice to your clients and come up with better solutions.

On a closing note, it is fairly clear that successful change is about a lot more than numbers even if numbers are part of the motivation. It is also refreshing to note that Jennifer Emery’s human-centric approach to organisational change applies beyond legal teams. Her sound advice provides inspiration for all meaningful changes, including life changes at large. You can find her book on Amazon and in all good bookstores.

You can follow Jennifer Emery on Twitter at @jenpens and on LinkedIn.

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