What a difference a few years make. Perhaps three years ago, law firms thought they had it tough, fighting the forest fires of changing market structures, increasing
client expectations and demands, and shifting staff and partner engagement needs. But now the flames have been fanned even more by the economic downturn, future economic uncertainties, market liberalisation, regulatory change and the progress of three fundamental drivers for change within the market: globalisation, consolidation and commoditisation.

Like its immediate predecessors, 2013 is proving to be a very difficult, if not impossible, year to predict. Already some firms have gained and lost significant clients, with expenditure being closely scrutinised, if not significantly reduced. Mergers of larger firms are frequently being announced, high street practices are feeling the pressure, and small and medium-sized firms are closely examining
their strategies, keenly concerned about getting trapped in the ‘middle ground’. New business models are emerging – everything from huge market entrants like Co-operative Legal Services, with their daunting customer reach and marketing budgets, to ‘virtual’ law firms challenging the need for fixed premises and staffing.

Throughout this tumultuous period, law firms still need to produce and sustain a profitable service, and this can only be done through their people (at all levels and in all areas); as ever, the success of a law firm is dependent on the ability of its people to use their expertise and knowledge to deliver valuable services to clients.

To continue to do that in this volatile market, law firm leaders must be able to lead effective change. Essentially, this means understanding the changes in the market, where you currently are (strengths, weaknesses, talents, competitors, clients, profits and so on), defining exactly where you want to be in light of the changes (clients, markets, sectors, products, profits, geography and so on), and then leading the people, implementation and transition to get there. To do that,
you need to ensure that your business, and the people within it, are capable of doing things differently in response to changes in the market and are aligned to working in a new way.

This article takes a practical look at how to lead effective change by:


In 1990, John Kotter identified, through significant research into a large number of companies, the following six main ‘failures’ in leading change.

Many of these will sound familiar to law firm leaders. From them, Kotter developed
his “eight-step process for leading change”.  To be effective, leaders of change need to ensure there is purposeful activity at all eight steps to avoid these ‘failures’. In law firms, this process can be used as a ‘checklist’ to achieve effective change.

The eight steps (edited for the purposes of this article) are outlined below. I have
also included the most common tips I have used for achieving each phase of the process successfully – although each leader will have different experiences around what does and doesn’t work for their firm. You can find out more about the process on the Kotter International website at tinyurl.com/ou8wsmw.

Research the market, analyse your competition, identify and discuss potential
crises and opportunities. The purpose of this phase is to show people that to stay as you are is not an option.

Practice points

Identify or create a powerful and influential group to lead the change, and enable that guiding coalition to work like a team. The purpose of this phase is to
ensure there is clear collective leadership involvement and responsibility.

Practice points

Create a vision to clarify and direct change activities and create strategies to
deliver the vision. The purpose of this phase is to ensure that, when change is undertaken, the end outcomes are clear – this prevents change for the sake of change and enables the measurement of progress.

Practice points

Use every possible way to communicate the new vision and strategies; enable members of the guiding coalition to be role models for the rest of the business. The purpose of this phase is to ensure that everyone understands the desired outcomes from the change and has time to assimilate and calibrate what that change means to them.

Practice points

Remove obstacles, change structures and processes that may obstruct the change effort, and encourage risk-taking and new ways of working / thinking. The purpose of this phase is to reduce personal and organisational resistance to change.

Practice points

Plan to show performance improvements, ‘create’ and talk about quick wins, and visibly recognise and reward those who made those wins possible. The purpose of this phase is to focus on demonstrating the benefits of the change and establishing a sense of progress around the change.

Practice points


Build on growing credibility to change all systems and structures that don’t fit in with the vision for the change; hire, promote and develop people who are successful in terms of the change; and reinvigorate the process with new projects. The purpose of this phase is to demonstrate and maintain a sense of purpose and progress, and to put in place the people (who may have different capabilities to
those that were previously in or acknowledged by the firm) who will ensure a continued focus on how things now need to be done.

Practice points

Ensure that everything reinforces the change, and progress towards it. The purpose of this, the final stage, is to ensure that the change becomes the ‘normality’ of how things are done, rather than a separate initiative.

Practice points

A firm is implementing a new partner remuneration system that is significantly different from its current system. It is making the change in order to target more profitable growth than has been experienced in recent years. In order to lead the change well, the firm could take the following steps, in the eight phases.

So what is it that leaders need to do to ensure that they are leading change effectively? Good leaders should, among other things:

The actions you take in your own firm may differ, but what is important is that leaders take responsibility for understanding their own capabilities at leading change, and seek to develop those capabilities.

Over the coming years, the ability of law firms to change and adapt to the market, clients and people will be a defining feature of success – or not. This represents a challenge, and opportunity, for leaders in law firms: to develop themselves to become exemplary leaders of change.