Voices in the Law Firm Wilderness

Topics: Change Management, Client Relations, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Legal Managed Services, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Small Law Firms Blog Posts

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The Altman Weil Law Firms in Transition survey remains a “must read” for any stakeholder in the legal industry. This year’s iteration reports that 69% of law firms say their partners resist most change efforts. This particular stat has seen steady growth over the past four years.

It’s no shock that lawyers don’t like change — we’re risk averse, we like precedent, etc., etc.

This finding, though, is most likely driven by the other response-options to the same question in the survey. The next most popular response choices are, in order: “Most partners are unaware of what they might do differently;” “We are not feeling enough economic pain to motivate significant change;” and “Clients aren’t asking for it.”

Let’s address them in reverse order. Clients will never ask, at least insomuch as they will never say, “We need you to start doing x, y, and z.” Many clients don’t know exactly what they want; they just know it needs to be different. Further, they will be really impressed by the first law firm that offers them something different and is willing to work with them on developing innovative strategy into a working model.

I hear from law firm lawyers regularly that they’re afraid their clients will just stop picking up the phone. Yet very few give their clients any new reasons why they should continue doing so.

This leads us to the second response I’d like to address, “We’re not feeling enough economic pain.” Why wait for pain?

There are two different ways to think about pain: First, that it’s symptomatic of an ailment, which you should really pay attention to; and second, that pain is essentially self-inflicted. It’s the difference between “my foot hurts because there is something medically wrong with my foot” and “my foot hurts because I stepped on a piece of broken glass.”

Economic pain should be treated like the latter. If we break a glass in our home, we don’t wait to clean it up until after we’ve stepped on a piece of it. Indeed, we’d get some rather odd looks if we explained to people that we hadn’t swept up the broken pieces because we weren’t feeling enough pain from it yet. But that is exactly what law firms are saying and doing in regard to their clients.


Because law firm partners think clients aren’t asking for change and because they don’t think they’re feeling enough pain yet, they aren’t stepping up to examine what they might do differently. There are evangelists at every firm, but are they being listened to?


If you wait to feel the pain, it’s already too late. In that instance, feeling the pain means you’re already losing clients and your practice is in jeopardy.

The idea of not feeling sufficient pain is also what drives that first response to the survey about partners not knowing what they might do differently. No one would argue that there is a dearth of information available for lawyers around potential changes — partners need only avail themselves of it. However, a lack of recognition of the danger they face leads to a lack of desire to seek solutions.

Because law firm partners think clients aren’t asking for change and because they don’t think they’re feeling enough pain yet, they aren’t stepping up to examine what they might do differently. There are evangelists at every firm, but are they being listened to?

July 20 marked the 49th anniversary of the historic moon landing. Scholars today agree that the moon landing would not have been possible had it not been for the decision to utilize a flight strategy called “lunar orbit rendezvous.” It was initially seen as highly risky and rejected at first. At the time, successfully orchestrating a rendezvous between two spacecrafts in Earth’s orbit was incredibly challenging. NASA feared that if they tried to rendezvous two spacecrafts around the moon and failed, it would result in mission failure and cost the astronauts their lives.

But a strong advocate of lunar orbit rendezvous: John Houbolt, an engineer at Langley, remained undeterred. He knew there was a better way than the options which were being discussed, and he staked his career on making his view known. Characterizing himself as “somewhat a voice in the wilderness,” Houbolt reached directly to the top leadership of NASA to advocate his case, and eventually won out over his detractors.

Should today’s advocates for change within law firms have to take the same sort of risk to make their voices heard? How many would? And would the leadership of today’s law firms be as willing to entertain such voices from the wilderness as NASA did, which led to the ultimate success of its moon missions?