New Zealand Law Society - The inevitability of change - is your firm ready?

The inevitability of change - is your firm ready?

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“You hear that Mr. Anderson?”...“That is the sound of inevitability... it is the sound of your death…” – Agent Smith

In this quote from the 1999 movie The Matrix the main character, Neo, is struggling with understanding the fundamental changes required of him to survive in his new world. The same can be said of many law firms – they struggle with the notion of, and inevitability of, change.

While many firms may be cognisant of changes in the marketplace, many are not equipped to think through the complexities of change management. Equally, many New Zealand law firms are “reluctant to change” and this is having a significant effect on leadership,1 innovation and efficiencies.

A lack of business skills, conservatism and risk aversion2 have also been major factors in preventing firms preparing for innovation and tackling business inefficiencies.

The far reaching impacts of globalisation have prompted change to become an almost permanent feature of the business landscape. Client and lawyer demographics, available labour pools, rapid advances in technology, client awareness and commericialisation are but a few of the environmental shifts impacting on being in practice in the 21st century. Lawyers must reflect on their competence in all areas of their practice to cope with these fundamental shifts.

What is change management?

Change management is defined as a “systematic approach to dealing with change, both from the perspective of an organisation and on the individual level”3. Importantly, and a fact that is often neglected, is that change is not a destination but a process.

What is crucial to the success of change?

The most crucial aspects of change management that underpin transformational success in your firm can be summarised by thinking culturally.

As a start, examine the values and mission of your firm, your history and strategic aims.

Question the health of your firm, not only in its cognitive competence but in its emotional state and resilience. Finally, consider the connectedness of your team – is everyone pointing in the same direction?

It is suggested that up to 70% of change initiatives fail4 due to a lack of cultural awareness. As a business leader you must be deeply aware of the answers to these questions before embarking on an initiative and equally aware of three major hurdles of change management.


In the United Kingdom, 98% of businesses report having experienced major organisational change in the last year5. It comes as no surprise then that “change fatigue” is a real risk. Firms trying to initiate too many changes can see their plans fail even before full implementation.

In trying to do too much, firms often run the risk of diluting the importance of the individual modifications. Equally, overdosing on change can confuse people’s roles, suggest instability and threaten productivity as people become disheartened. This is especially true when change is rushed and poorly thought through.


Many firms set out to tackle the immediate issues, without having spent enough time on thinking about what any initiative may look and feel like in five years.

When considering sustainability, employ the practice of back-mapping, where you plan backwards from your vision of the completed project three years out. Ask yourself what operational improvements and training you put in place, who you train and how you distribute this new knowledge of operations. Ask how you alter your quality assurance procedures and how you communicate and consult with your team on your long-term goals.

In doing so, you may have addressed some of the issues around sustainability that are often identified as having been lacking in failed change programmes.


A significant change management error is in adopting a top down approach. In neglecting to see the potential in involving a range of stakeholders, from the receptionist to the student doing their professionals, firms run the risk of limiting the breadth of ideas and solutions that can be attained by involving a more diverse team.

Equally, the chance is missed to secure some valuable early adopters. Without developing a more distributive approach you may find a lack of understanding and agreement with the impact of the planned change. Consider enabling champions as a means for a more rapid embedding of business transformations.

“Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realise just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” — Morpheus

In the middle of the movie, Neo is challenged to think about changing his perception of things and taking action to make things better

A systematic approach to change management

Think about these ideas as you navigate the difficult path of organisational change.

Engage leadership. Senior partners must be well informed of any plans. While other stakeholders must be involved, as previously discussed, leaders need to have a deep understanding of any project. No firm will enjoy success without the agreement and full commitment of the leadership team.

Examine your culture. Consider about how you will overcome cultural barriers and utilise your firm’s cultural strength. Think about the strengths that exist in your approach to business and existing skills that will assist the project. This includes the way your team works, when it works and the language you use in policy and personal communications. Harness these to energise and support the change.

Diversify leadership. Pull together a diverse group. This wider group will mean the project may take longer to implement, but this will be paid back with the cross-fertilisation of ideas and added level of critical analysis that will occur when viewed from these different angles. Equally, when people are involved in planning they will be more invested in seeing it succeed. Finally, don’t assume that senior partners are going to be the best at leading this group. Be courageous by placing someone else in the driving seat.

Embrace emotions. We are emotional creatures. Ignoring how much our emotional state affects our client and collegial relationships, and ultimately productivity, is dangerous. Listen closely to conflicting points of view about the proposal. Think deeply about if this change will affect the way people feel about their jobs, and value in the firm. Communicate openly what is being looked at and why. Use positive language and encourage people to be part of the journey. Admit when things have gone wrong.

Map the process. Create a strategy team to think about the project management of the change. Consider resourcing, timing, leadership, opportunities and risks. Plan in advance a series of milestones and review points. Don’t be afraid to have a “pull the plug date” calendared if plans change. Good planning is vital.

Identify problems. Identify what can go wrong, then create the solutions. Think about redesigning connected systems and structures where things could go wrong.

Keep communicating. Just because you’ve talked about it once doesn’t mean anything will happen. Support people, keep engaging and talking with others so momentum is kept up and you keep your finger on the pulse around the rate of adoption. Make sure you have a plan on the “how” and “who” of engaging in this part of the management process. Seek out people you can use as sounding boards for progress, communicate frequently with your early adopters to motivate them to continue their good work. This will be crucial when you review your innovation.

Model expectations. Consistently model the change you want to see – as Ghandi famously stated, “be the change you wish to see in the world”. No amount of clear documentation or well thought out and communicated meeting agendas will initiate change unless it is accompanied by leaders modelling what is expected. This must occur without exception.

Evaluate, adapt and revisit. Create a clear set of criteria to evaluate at various stages of implementation and at different times once the change is more embedded. Left alone, people tend to revert back to old habits. Take care of this by understanding that you will need to revisit and potentially adapt your initial model.

At the end of The Matrix we find Neo, after careful planning, training and taking appropriate action, well adapted to his altered surroundings. The Matrix, unprepared for the change Neo brings, unravels.

Change is inevitable and, for the most part, is already deeply affecting the law profession.

In considering these ideas when you approach changes you may find your firm ready to more effectively and competently tackle the complexities of change management and to help your firm’s survival.

“What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?” “No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.” 6

Ken Trass is the New Zealand Law Society’s Professional Development Manager.


1. Tupman, S. (2012) as cited in: Coburn, J. (2015). Challenging the Way Law is Delivered. Paper for the LawTech NZ Conference 2015

2. Tupman, S. (2011) as cited in: Coburn, J. (2015). Challenging the Way Law is Delivered. Paper for the LawTech NZ Conference 2015

3. Rouse, M. Change Management. Post on: accessed on 17-08-15

4. Kotter, J. (1995) cited in


6. All quotes from The Matrix (1999) from accessed on 17/08/15.

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