As we all know re-structuring or implementing any strategy in Chambers can be incredibly difficult. Many a new CEO has foundered as they discover the difficulties of getting agreement from the members and then resistance from the incumbent team. So what are the considerations and what needs to be in place to be able to successfully implement the desired change?
At a time of ongoing changes across the legal services sector barristers are facing new challenges as much as other professionals. Cuts in legal aid, the introduction of solicitor advocates and direct access are amongst many factors forcing barristers and chambers to review the way that they work.
In addition, there are opportunities to change the fundamental structure of a set. We have seen new virtual chambers, BSB regulated entities and alternative business structures (ABS’s). Looking to the future members of chambers have a wide range of opportunities and threats to address.
Failure to do so, or for there not appear to be a plan to do so, can lead to nervousness or frustration among members and staff. Sets have lost valued people, even whole teams, to other chambers where those individuals have felt that their personal practices will be more secure and they will have better opportunities to develop elsewhere.
Why do Chambers fail to deliver change?
We have seen sets struggle to establish their place in the new competitive environment. It is not plausible to believe that members, clerks or administrative teams are unaware of the problems.
Research studying wider law firm failures in the USA, by Management Consultants Hildebrandt International, found that while financial performance and external factors were obvious reasons, internal factors, including weak leadership were often the underlying cause. The inability to formulate and deliver coherent, timely and practical responses to the issues were the ultimate cause of failures. The crisis may have hit today, but the underlying symptoms may not have been addressed for many years.
The report explains that most failed organisations lacked a realistic strategic focus. Either they had no strategy or, at best, a “paper strategy” that had never been truly accepted…
“The seeds of most law firm failures are sown long before the actual dissolutions.”
This emphasises that it is crucial for chambers to consider their strategic direction. But, even once plans are agreed many sets still fail to successfully implement them. The following are areas to consider when assessing how best to successfully implement your strategies.
Understand the wider context
Managing change is a complex process, requiring both analysis and action. Without a clear understanding of the context in which change is being implemented it is unlikely that the right balance of measures will be identified to ensure that strategies are successfully delivered.
The challenge for the leaders is to understand what will most effectively deliver the required outcome. Coercion or direction may successfully deliver rapid changes. Sometimes this can be critical for the survival of the set. However, will the initial transformation “stick” for the long term, or will staff drift back to old behaviours? Will there be collateral damage to the way that the set performs or is perceived by its clients?
An analysis of the following can help to gauge the challenges to be addressed, allowing leaders to assess the full range of aspects to be addressed.
- Are members and staff convinced of the need for change?
- How willing and motivated are they?
- How much understanding is there of the scope required?
Often managers will refer to a need for a crisis (real or artificial) to start the change process. This burning platform approach can be effective to focus attention, but it also runs the risk of sending plans in the wrong direction.
- How much time do you have in which to achieve the desired change?
- Is the set in crisis or is it concerned with long-term challenges?
A shortage of time is likely to tip the balance towards the use of harsher coercive drivers as chambers looks for the “quick fix”. However, this can be risky for delivering long-term improvements in performance.
- What is the breadth of change required?
- If wide-ranging and fundamental, is chambers able to move all the way in a single step?
- Is the authority in place to deliver the desired change? (A particularly relevant issue in in chambers).
- Where is power vested within chambers?
- How much latitude or discretion do the leaders possess?
- Does the capability or competence exist within chambers to successfully deliver the strategies?
- How much change has the organisation and its staff experienced already?
- Is there sufficient expertise at an individual level?
- Are the resources available to deliver the process?
- Staff already have their day job, how will they find the time to successfully deliver desired changes?
- What are the differing demands of those involved with the set (the stakeholders)?
- Are the views across the set diverse or relatively homogenous?
- Are there many subcultures within chambers (between members, clerks and other staff)?
- Do any differences need addressing to be able to succeed?
You need to address the concerns of stakeholders both inside and outside of chambers. This might include key referrers of work, or regulators.
- What is essential to maintain continuity or preserve specific assets?
- Have you identified the critical success factors that contribute towards the identity and success of the set?
It is important to remember that key strategic assets may not be readily identifiable. When driving through change there is always a risk that these unique capabilities can be lost and competitive advantage reduced. It can be beneficial to map where your existing successes come from. Very often the answers can surprise you.
Each of the above points has implications for the way that the leadership can implement change. Considering the answers to these questions allows the change process to be tailored to the specific challenges you face.
Having addressed the above what are some of the approaches that will help you to achieve practical delivery?
The Change Agent
It is important to have clarity with regards to who is empowered and responsible for delivery. This person, or small team of people, will act as the change agents for the set.
There may be obvious candidates for this role. However, as these individuals will already have full-time responsibilities will they have time to ensure success? For example, a senior member of Chambers may have the authority but they cannot afford to lose work for themselves or risk damaging their own practices.
Many sets have employed a CEO or Chambers Director and charged them with driving through the change process. However, if new to the role these professional managers are often surprised at the limitations of their power to implement the desired strategies and feel undermined in their efforts.
If this latter route is taken it is critical to ensure that the significant investment of employing these people is backed up by support from the members and management committees.
Whoever you chose to fill this role, the change agent(s) will need to be able to deliver several roles:
- project manager
- relationship builder
- team leader
With all of this to manage members of chambers or senior clerking staff may struggle to deliver the role to the standard needed. For small to medium sized sets it may be necessary to look for external and experienced help.
Where firms struggle, they can turn to consultants for help. Great care should be taken when doing so. There is a risk that consultancies will try to drive change according to their own perceived values. or see their job as completed after the initial implementation phase. Therefore, look for those whose values align to yours. Not simply the one with the best known name. Consider including agreed targets within the agreement with the consultant. These should not purely be short term but should also reflect longer term benefits that you are aiming for.
Plan, prepare and maintain your communications
Of all the aspects of the change management process communication is the most critical and often the most poorly managed.
Without proper communication trust can be rapidly lost. This risks misleading stories circulating and dramatic deteriorations of performance. It may also lose you critical individuals who, incorrectly decide to jump ship. Communication is critical to the successful engagement of everyone in chambers.
One of the best opportunities to learn about its critical role comes from the retail sector, that of Archie Norman and Allan Leighton of Asda in the early 1990’s. The key point is that they successfully turned around a massive and struggling organisation, close to collapse, in large part by focusing on communication.
Some may remember the phrase “Ask Archie” on a badge worn by Norman as he toured stores and was interviewed by the media. The process went a lot deeper than this. Not only were the leadership seen regularly on the shop floor, making themselves accessible to staff, managers and customers, they also enforced the culture of communication across the business.
Store managers were measured on their communications as much as on financial performance. The ability to focus staff, learn from them and to align attitudes was fundamental. This was widely recognised as a key factor in the turnaround of the business. A salient lesson for all those preparing to make changes to their organisations.
Therefore maintain regular communications, not just the initial announcement. This should include:
- explain the strategy and the aims to stakeholders,
- expand on the steps to be taken to those who are affected,
- update staff on milestones achieved, and if not achieved explain why and what is being done to address this,
- use office or “department” meetings to talk to smaller groups. Get their feedback, acknowledge it and respond.
- utilise appraisals or annual reviews to motivate staff at an individual level.
Tailor your messages to suit your audience. The clients may not particularly care about the installation of a new case management system. Your staff may find it a real focus of attention.
Protect and keep key staff
Ensure that steps are taken to retain key staff. For many this will be an unsettling time so those critical for the future of the combined firm need to be encouraged and motivated to stay.
“Quick Hits” – Make the hard decisions early on
Where facing re-structuring or other major upheavals, try as far as practically possible to get the bad news out of the way early on. However do not rush this at the expense of the appropriate consultations. Remember someone may throw up a valid point that you’ve overlooked and need to deal with.
It is always likely that there is a degree of shock and worry. There will be a transition during which the team need to be supported. However, if properly managed, once the initial impact has passed members & staff are more likely to feel positive about their own futures and that of the firm.
Measure your progress – Targets and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Targets and KPI’s are a part of every well run business. They are valuable in driving successful change. However for them to be effective there are a few simple rules to adhere to:
- Keep KPIs simple, understandable and measurable.
- Report results regularly to allow staff to respond.
- Be careful that your targets do not drive adverse behaviours.
- Understand the reason for the measure. Test existing KPIs from time to time to ensure that they are still achieving the desired results.
Build the new paradigm
As quickly as possible look to build the new values and principles of the set. This is part of forming the new culture, including:
- power structures
- organisational structures
- control systems
- routines and rituals
By getting these established staff become focused more quickly on the benefits of working in the new “stronger” chambers and less pre-occupied with the loss of the old “comfortable” culture that they knew.
Many chambers face the need to make major changes to stay viable in today’s changing legal sector. All too often leaders fail to implement the strategic changes required to address the underlying problems that they face.
When implementing new strategies within the set it is important to consider the context in which you are working. How ready are people for change and what needs to be preserved? Are the skills and abilities in place to be able to successfully deliver new roles?
By considering these issues, understanding the specific challenges and communicating clearly those responsible for delivery can tailor their plans so that they can have the best chance of success.
Alex von der Heyde BSc (Hons), MBA
Tel.: 08455 199149
 The Anatomy of Law Firm Failures – December 2008