Lawyers love change = True?

Originally published on LinkedIn in January 2019.

Victoria Swedjemark on 17/06/19

I have been around in the legal world for quite some time now and for many, many years we have talked about all the change that needs to happen in the legal industry and in legal practice. We talk about how we need to adopt new business models for law firms, new operating models for in-house legal, new tech solutions and new mindsets, and how we need to re-skill or up-skill. Yet in practice there is not that much change happening, at least not at the pace that could be expected. Why is it change in our industry is so slow paced at the same time as the world around us changes dramatically so rapidly?

There has been quite a lot said and written about lawyers and resistance to change. One of the most popular models to explain why lawyers are not more receptive to change is the nature of lawyers.

The lawyer personality

I recently listened to Dr Larry Richard speak on this topic. With reference to research made on lawyer personality he explains that many lawyers possess pretty extreme personality traits, compared to the average Joe or Jane. Lawyers have extremely high autonomy, and don’t like being told by others what to do. Lawyers also have low resilience, for example are not very receptive to feedback, such as goodwill suggestions on ways to improve. Lawyers also are highly sceptical by nature and don’t naturally trust other people. Finally lawyers score low on both sociability and cognitive empathy – leading them to shy away from vulnerability and emotions and be less capable of understanding other people’s perspectives. Some lawyers just don’t understand what it is like to walk in somebody else’s shoes.

How lawyers are ”coded”

In addition, lawyers are ”coded” by the training we get at law school and the way we later learn and carry out our work, based on the very nature of the work we do. For example we place a lot of focus on identifying and handling risks and different sorts of problems and challenges. We learn to question and to see hidden agendas, as well as to argue rationally. Lawyers also rely on precedents, guidance from previous case law, or interpretation of legislative intent, which are all retrospective rather than prospective in nature. This either reinforces the traits we naturally brought with us or has otherwise strongly characterised us along the way.

So is resistance to change even a problem?

Let’s assume that all of this is at least a valid explanation to why many lawyers don’t easily embrace change and why the pace of change in our industry remains slow. So, then, is this a problem? Well, given what is happening in the world around us, with virtually everything changing at high speed, I think it is fair to assume: YES! I think there is reason to be concerned for lawyers. When change at scale happens, such as fourth industrial revolution type of change, those that do not make the necessary changes to adapt to the new reality run a high risk of becoming irrelevant as professionals and seeing their businesses be disrupted by other players that better surf the waves of change. Or to put it differently, inability or unwillingness to change in a relevant way will be a huge competitive disadvantage going forward.

So what should lawyers do?

So what should lawyers do, what actions should lawyers take based on these insights? Well, I guess there are two options to remain successful. Either we must individually embrace change, as lawyers, (both by changing our attitude and mindset and by implementing change in operating models and business models) or we need to hook up with other people that have the necessary, complementary traits and skills.

It is encouraging to hear Dr Richard remind us that it is possible to develop as a person, that your personality is not fixed. Lawyers’ high autonomy can be offset by developing collaboration skills. Resilience also can be trained, as can positivity and emotional intelligence (EQ). He elaborates on this in this interview.

This is good news. I like to think that there are many great lawyers out there that, like myself, see the need to learn new skill sets and adopt new approaches and ways of thinking. But I wonder if there is enough sense of urgency at scale among lawyers on the need to change, on the need to revisit personal development road maps.

There are also those that suggest that many lawyers have a static mindset, rather than a growth mindset. Those with a static mindset tend to think that they are who they are, based on inherent skills and traits, and cannot change, whereas people with a growth mindset are convinced that they can develop their intellect, personality and skill sets. They believe in developing and growing, and embrace failure as a great way to learn for the future. If it is true that many lawyers have a static mindset, could it be that they are then even incapable of changing? Could it be that some lawyers simply don’t ”have it in them”?

Well, if you are unable - or even just unwilling - to change and develop as a lawyer to meet the realities of the future you probably need to acknowledge that you need to add complementary traits and skill sets to your team or to your practice to remain successful. You may need to add innovators, inspirational team leaders, project management professionals and change agents to your team - and you need to step back to let them thrive. The legal operations teams that are evolving in many in-house legal functions often consists of non-lawyers. I doubt it is coincidence.

This was originally published on LinkedIn in January 2019 and can be found here.

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