Managing change

They say that change is a constant. As an in-house lawyer you’ll be aware of the need to adapt and respond to changes on many fronts – from new legislation and regulations, the development of new products or services, changing markets and trading conditions, mergers and acquisitions, new technologies, and changes in senior personnel, all of which may lead to organisational change requiring a legal response.

As a GC or leader in the legal team, there will also be occasions when you will want to (or need to) make changes, either of your own volition or in response to organisational or business demands.

For example, you may want to restructure the legal team to make it more or less centralised so as to improve the responsiveness of your lawyers. Or you may need to introduce new ways of working, including the use of new technologies.

Whatever the reason for the change, you’ll want to ensure that the changes you want to make happen smoothly and with minimum disruption. 

In this article we look at 13 things to think about when you’re managing change in the legal team. We touch briefly upon the methodologies of change but the emphasis is on the ways that you can help smooth the path for your team and your clients.

#1 Be transparent

People are often suspicious of change. They’re not sure why it’s necessary, what it will involve or achieve, or how it will affect them and their job. To counter this suspicion, it’s important to spend time explaining not just what changes are required but also explaining the nature of the challenges facing the team or the organisation and why change is necessary and important. Implementing change requires effort and co-operation and you won’t get that without building trust. People can be suspicious of motives and hidden agendas so recognise this by being as transparent and open as you can be, both at the beginning and throughout the change process.

#2 Make the case for change

As well as being transparent about why change is necessary, you also need to be a strong advocate for the need to change. If the changes are yours, this is likely to be easier as you will already be committed. Implementing change is rarely straightforward and without hiccups so it matters that you are champion in chief as people will look to you to provide direction and leadership, particularly when problems arise. If you are charged with managing an organisational change, even if, privately, you’re not totally convinced by it, you will also need to be able to make the case for why change needs to happen.

#3 Lead by example

To be effective, change needs to start at the top. If this means you then make sure you are leading by example and not merely being a mouthpiece for change. If the change involves changes to working practices, for example, make sure that you are an early adopter. If you have a senior team that reports to you, it’s important to first ensure that the team are agreed on the need for change as well as the methodology. Nothing is likely to undermine the case for change more than divisions amongst senior staff.

#4 Involve everyone

Whilst it’s important to have a unified senior team, for change to work it will usually require the cooperation of others in junior and mid-ranking roles, including any support staff. And this doesn’t just mean in relation to roll-out. When you’re formulating your thinking and planning, you’ll want to consult those on the ‘front-line’ who will need to implement changes that are made. Not only will this help expose any flaws in your planning but it will help involve them in the process and help to build trust and engagement.

#5 Work with the culture

Implementing change to do things differently (and better) may appear to some to involve a deliberate attempt to invalidate what’s gone before and to change the culture of the team or organisation. This can make it harder to achieve collaboration and ‘buy-in’. While cultural change may be desired it often pays to work with the best of the existing culture and use those elements that are most aligned with the changes to be made, not least as people often have a strong emotional attachment to the identity of the organisation or team they joined. While change strategies and plans are important, don’t forget to engage on a cultural and emotional level also.

#6 Enlist supporters

If you know that the changes you want to make may be difficult to sell, you’ll need to enlist the support of others to be your champions of change. These may be people in your own team and beyond. Champions will often be early adopters of different work practices or technology and who represent, in their approach, why the changes are desirable and worthwhile. It also helps to pick champions who are influential on others, those whose opinion is sought out and valued. Seniority is irrelevant here, as you want a mix of people able to act as your advocates with different audiences.

#7 Deal with cynics

Because change can be challenging, you’ll want to allow a sensible period for transition and for changes to bed in. After all, it’s rare for changes to be universally accepted from day one, or that the benefits are seen immediately. But if there are a small number of individuals who, no matter what steps you take to persuade them, are clearly intent on not supporting what you want to do, you’ll need to be prepared to take action to prevent them undermining the change programme. This may involve not tolerating the use of old systems and practices you’re replacing; introducing disincentives; and calling out undermining behaviour. Ultimately, you need to be resilient, back the changes and not let a few critics sabotage your plans.

#8 Engage with stakeholders

Depending on the scale of the change programme, the changes may impact not only those in your team but also those in the wider organisation. This will be especially so if you are reorganising or restructuring the way in which you provide services to clients. In this case you will want to engage key stakeholders at the planning stage as they will be influential in the way that your plans progress. You may also want to think about mapping stakeholder impact to ensure that you cover the full range of stakeholders likely to be affected. You could compile a stakeholder analysis listing, in four quadrants, stakeholders that have high influence and high interest (the key players); high influence but low interest (meet their needs); low influence and high interest (show consideration); and low influence and low interest (the least important group).

#9 Communicate, communicate, communicate

No matter how compelling the case for change, you will need to think about who needs to know what and when and how to best inform them. If the change programme is substantial there is likely to be a project plan, with communication channels and timeframes built in. Otherwise, think about the different groups of stakeholders involved and the purpose of communicating with them in each case and how to do it. Your own team will want regular updates and feedback, as will stakeholders with direct involvement. But will you do this via email, intranet updates, meetings, or project groups? How will you engage and inform wider stakeholder groups, including those with any ‘sign-off’ responsibilities? Think about who you need to inform, consult with and collaborate with to make the planning and roll-out go to plan. Also, the channels you’ll employ. It’s unlikely that one method of communication will work for everyone.

#10 Reward and training

Particularly if you’re making changes that require people to change their work behaviours or learn new skills (say, around the use of technology), you’ll want to think about how to make this happen. For example, will people require training to equip them for new work processes and do you need to incentivise adoption, even if not financially based? And it may not be just about formal training – you may also want to think about what opportunities there will be for people to provide comment, feedback and raise issues as changes are rolled out? For example, do you need to think about utilising an existing mentoring programme to help people transition to a different work model – or perhaps establish a programme if none exists?

#11 Look for quick wins

Finding changes you can make quickly and easily help with building momentum. In your planning phase, think about what these might be and implement them as soon as you can. You may well find, for example, that making tweaks to established work practices that have developed over time are straightforward and not controversial, particularly if this speeds up response times. Some of these quick wins may not be obvious to you but may be to those working on the front line, which is why it’s useful to involve people in different roles and at all levels in planning for change.

#12 Maintain momentum

Whilst taking your time in planning change may be sensible, once you’ve planned and consulted, it pays to get on with it. Of course, you need to assess feedback and adapt as required, but acting swiftly will often help develop an expectation that things are changing and that the changes being introduced are necessary. To help this process make sure that decision making is swift and urgent and that communication is clear and regular. While there may be constraints in acting as quickly as you’d like, act as quickly as you can within the framework you’ve established as it demonstrates commitment and urgency.

#13 Review, measure and adapt

Whether as part of a formal change project plan, or not, you’ll want to ensure that you build in time to review and measure the implementation of changes being made. This will involve getting feedback from those involved to ascertain whether you’ve met your targets and whether any changes need further adapting.

Helpful tools

If you’re planning and implementing change, there are various tools available to help you. Here are examples of a few of the better known ones:-

  • The Change Curve - describes the stages of transition involved in most organisational change.
  • The Burke-Litwin Change Model - 12 dimensions, at an organisational level, that are key to change, organised into four levels covering matters relevant to external environment, strategic, operational, and staff management.
  • Kotter’s 8-step Change Model - sets out eight steps to effecting lasting change.
  • Stakeholder analysis and management – templates to help analyse those who’ll be affected by change and how they’ll be informed, consulted and collaborated with, as required.


10 Principles of Leading Change Management – DeAnne Aguirre and Micah Alpern, June 2014

How to bring about change in law firms – Jordan Furlong, April 2017