Courageous Change: How to Change a Law Department When Everything is Going Smoothly


One of the marks of a strong leader is knowing when change is needed. The best leaders identify the need and lead change before the need for change becomes obvious to everyone.

Leaders who join a law department in disarray know that they need to make changes, and their teams expect it. However, incumbent leaders of high functioning teams face unique challenges and require specific skills and support to create change without disrupting the team culture, morale or other factors that make the team effective.

As an incumbent leader, you have been part of building the status quo. You know your people and are naturally reluctant to make changes that could adversely impact them. You understand the reasons behind the current organizational structure of your team and may believe that those rationales are likely still valid, at least in part. And you also have an intimate understanding of the overall company culture, and how the legal team fits into the organization. Addressing these challenges requires foresight, business acumen, strong relationships and excellent communication skills.

Early Warning Indicators

Several warning signs should alert you to the possibility that your legal department needs a thorough review and possibly an overhaul. Any one of the situations below should cause a leader to consider the need for change:

  • Workloads are significantly uneven.
  • There is a mismatch between the work your people are doing and their skills and interests.
  • You don’t have a succession plan.
  • Your company’s strategic plan contemplates transformational change.
  • Your industry is undergoing transformational change.
  • Internal stakeholders are complaining about legal support, whether it’s slower than usual response times, unexplained increases in outside counsel spending, or other aspects of the legal function.
  • Your best performers are leaving due to lack of career opportunities.

Start With Your Direct Reports

Leader-driven change comes from the top down. Once you have determined that you need to make changes, the first step should be to look at your direct reports as analytically and objectively as possible. Ask yourself whether they have the legal skills, the emotional intelligence, and the drive to be part of the change you are trying to create. This kind of assessment may be difficult to do without some external expert assistance, particularly if you hired these people or have worked with them for a long time. This is where an outside perspective might be helpful. Turning to a human resources team member or an external consultancy can be very helpful in making this assessment by using a combination of one-on-one interviews and a psychometric tool such as the EQ-i 2.0 or the Hogan Assessment. Look for an expert who understands your vision and what it will require of your leadership team so that they can tell you who is ready for the change now, who is likely to be able to adapt, and who is not likely to thrive in the new version of your team.

Once you have made your assessment of each member of your leadership team, share your vision with them. Listen to their points of view and be open to making adjustments in your plans. This is a delicate and important part of the change process. You will need the support of your leadership team to successfully transform your department. They need to know that you trust them and hear them, even if you don’t agree with them. Encourage different points of view and alternative solutions but, at some point, you will need to decide when debate is over and time for action begins.

The leadership team must be consistent in messaging to their teams and the rest of the business as to what will change and why. Create a list of agreed upon message points and incorporate those into all communications about the change.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication is an essential component of a successful change process, particularly where there is a good culture that the leader does not want to disrupt. As a legal department leader, you need to communicate your vision, why you believe change is necessary, and how you plan to retain what is working well in the current situation. Your communications should explain your rationale and paint a positive picture of the future. Acknowledge the difficulties that may arise as a result of the changes you are proposing. To be credible, you cannot gloss over potential negatives of the change. Anticipate the toughest questions you can get, and answer them proactively in a Q&A document or session.

No matter how positive you believe the change will be, at least some of your team will see it negatively. They may be concerned about losing their job, losing their manager or losing their favorite clients. Change, no matter how necessary or well planned, can be very unsettling. Make sure your communication strategy includes opportunities for people to discuss the impact on them personally either with their manager or with you.

The larger and more geographically dispersed the team, the more complex communications tend to be. Be sure that any video or conference calls to discuss the change are held at various times so that everyone can attend during business hours. Outside the U.S., make sure your changes do not trigger any legal or regulatory issues, and consult with local leadership or HR on how to message it in a culturally appropriate way.

Find the Right External Partner

Transformational change is time consuming and complex. No matter how clear you are about the changes you want to make and why, it is helpful to bring in an objective third-party expert to help as a thought partner and project manager. In choosing a partner, ensure that they will provide you with the following types of support:

  • Information about market relevant data and best practices considered or adopted by other legal departments;
  • The ability to help you assess your people and their suitability for current or different roles;
  • A one-on-one interview process, as your team is likely to share unfiltered thoughts with an outside consultant rather than with management;
  • Expertise in change management; and
  • Project management skills.

Maintenance Is Required

Business is dynamic, and change is constant. After you’ve implemented your transformational change, remember to conduct a review every year or two to determine whether your legal team is still on track alongside the business or whether any adjustments need to be made. In your review, include feedback from your team and internal stakeholders to identify any tweaks that need to be made before the next set of warning signs become visible.

This article was co-authored by Laura Stevens of the Cengage Group.


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