What a box of frogs… traditionalists v modernists:business dilemma for law firms

Posted on June 17th, 2010 by Chrissie Lightfoot

Last week, Chris Roebuck, in his interesting post on making change happen in the Law Society Gazette 'In Business' blog, stated that ‘legal firms face probably their toughest challenges for years’.

In the past few weeks, I have been liaising and collaborating with prospective clients and colleagues. It’s patently obvious to me that we’re all still suffering in the long tail of the recession, and there’s a sense of urgency required to bring about positive change.

The experience has also reinforced my belief that one of the biggest challenges facing partners in established law firms is the conflict between ‘traditional’ lawyers and ‘entrepreneurial’ lawyers in finding agreement and buy-in on the way forward – that is to say, what ‘change’, where?, when?, why? and how?

I liken the transition and turmoil occurring right now in the legal world to an analogy used by Pierce Brosnan in the movie Dante’s Peak. Brosnan plays a volcanologist who is desperate to convince his colleagues that a town is in danger from a volcano about to erupt. He and his colleagues have been stationed there and tracking activity.

What Brosnan says is: If you put a frog in boiling water it will jump right out (frog 1). But if you place a frog in a pan of cold water and heat the water gently over time, it will just sit there until it eventually boils to death (frog 2).

His message is simply this: ‘If we’d arrived here today we’d know we were in trouble’.

If you’ve been in the legal industry for some time, and are more of a ‘traditionalist’, you’re probably like frog 2.
But from an outsider looking in, that is a non-lawyer, or if you’re an entrepreneurial lawyer, you’re like frog 1.

Either way, the legal industry is pretty much like a box of frogs at this very moment. It’s a mix of frog type 1 and frog type 2, hopping around and not quite sure which way to jump in what one might describe as a ‘Luddite v Evangelist’ face-off.
Interesting times…

If we keep doing the same things we’ve always done (traditional stuff) and it’s not getting results – and yet the rebel (entrepreneurial lawyer) is doing things differently (innovative stuff) and it’s working – then why aren’t we buying into doing more of the latter?

Wanting things to improve but resisting the opportunity to change reminds me of a Chinese proverb: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different outcome.’

So, how do we deal with change when different factions are at war? And what’s the solution?

Well, there are two ways to pass a hurdle: leaping over or ploughing through. There needs to be a ‘monster truck’ option. (Jeph Jacques – web comic).

Seriously, perhaps the answer lies within the writing, experience, wisdom and success stories of change masters and entrepreneurs past and present, the likes of Chris Roebuck; Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her book The Change Masters: Corporate Entrepreneurs At Work; Tom Peters’ Thriving On Chaos; Collins & Porras’ Built To Last and Good To Great; Peters & Waterman’s In Search Of Excellence; Seth Godin’s Meatball Sundae; Chip Conley’s The Rebel Rules: Daring To be Yourself In Business; and John Kotter as far back as 1995 in Harvard Business Review (March – April edition) Leading Change.

Kotter (in 1995 Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School in Boston) stated that the most successful change efforts begin when some individuals or groups start to look really hard at the firm’s financial performance, competitive situation, market position and technological trends.

For example, the individual or group will focus on the five-year trend in declining margins in a core business, or an emerging market that everyone seems to be ignoring (I’ll pick up on this in another blog post). Fundamentally, they then (I quote) ‘find ways to communicate this information broadly and dramatically’. Kind of nothing short of ‘wakey-wakey’ colleagues!

It’s worth noting that Chip Conley, ‘boy wonder’ of the American travel industry – founder and owner of Joie de Vivre Hospitality – reveals that the secret of his success lies in the primary traits of vision, passion, instinct and agility, combined with engaging employees and colleagues and encouraging them to break the rules. Break with tradition perhaps?

Kotter proffers eight change steps, all of which I cannot possibly cover in depth but perhaps I will return to in due course.

The first step is to establish a sense of urgency – to examine market and competitive realities, identify and discuss crises, potential crises or major opportunities.

The second step is to form a powerful guiding coalition – assembling a group with enough power to lead the change effort in encouraging the group to work together as a team.

And herein is the hard-hitting lesson from the successful change masters…

It’s a time to make peace in the board room (let bygones be bygones), find ways in which the traditional lawyers and entrepreneurial lawyers are similar, instead of the ways in which we are different, and then embrace those differences to achieve a positive outcome.

It’s understandable that to change may well be difficult, but not to change could well be fatal.

One thing’s for sure. We can’t just sit here, procrastinate or continue squabbling any longer. I don’t want to boil to death. Do you?

Chrissie Lightfoot
The Entrepreneur Lawyer
(of the naked kind)

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 17th, 2010 at 2:32 pm and is filed under Entrepreneurs, Future Law, Law Management, Lawyers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Chrissie

    I love the Box of Frogs analogy but I think the situation is not as diametrically opposed as the two types: 1 and 2 (it reminded me a bit of the Cat in the Hat!).

    I don’t believe lawyers, even those that might be regarded as ‘old school’, are immune to or against change (whether lawyers would be happy to admit to being entrepreneurial I don’t know), but their is an inertia issue. In short there is too much friction: the rather hidebound approach that goes with hourly rates or even something a little more creative; the intense focus on regulation (right in most respects but still not to everyone’s liking); too little investment in developing lawyers outside of their traditional area of competence (I remember talking to someone about Nissan and advocating that a training contract should be multi-disciplinary and not just cross-departmental); the need to limit risk and not going wondering around on a frolic of your own; and, and it is a mighty AND, the fear of failure. Don’t we all know that but it is unsettling at the best of time doing something that is new (I would prefer not to use the word innovative – not yet anyway). For me the place to start is at the individual level with a game-changing plan; not to throw out centuries of tradition but to try and exploit the creative intellectual capital of all lawyers to the maximum as well as the firms’ internal resources (and leveraging them for all they are worth). Now wouldn’t that be innovative: the HR team being offered for sale as well as the lawyers; and the IT team working with clients and charging for their services. I believe that lawyers are more adaptable and intuitive than they are given credit for but they do need to be let free a bit more and in that way market opportunities are more likely to arise.

    Best wishes

  2. Chrissie says:

    Hi Julian. Thanks for your comment. All great points. Agree with you on a lot of fronts, particularly your last sentence in which you state “lawyers are more adaptable and intuitive than they are given credit for but they do need to be let free a bit more and in that way market opportunities are more likely to arise”.

  3. Les Ormonde says:

    I suggest change begins with individual dissatisfaction. It gains momentum if there is a compelling problem which those affected can relate to and rally around. Easy enough to see the connection with Kotter’s ‘sense of urgency’.

    However, I don’t completely see eye to eye with Kotter on this as he implies that ‘management’ can, by virtue of good analysis and clear communication of the result cause the scales to fall from peoples eyes and they will as a result ‘get on board the bus’. In my experience, unless the situation is truly dire, there will always be groups who don’t accept what they are being told. Rarely will an entire organisation agree on reasons for change as the different stakeholder groups will view the situation with different lenses. One person’s compelling problem is another’s item of trivia.

    Influential people (usually experienced middle managers) tend to assess a proposed change in terms of what they are likely to lose and act accordingly. So although the intention of creating a sense of urgency about the need to change is good, it can be incredibly difficult to achieve whereas those who would protect the status quo have very little convincing to do and are free to try and derail an initiative covertly. And that is how you end up with a box of frogs.

    Even if you can get a critical mass of people aligned around the need for change, getting them to agree on what to change to can be equally difficult. I have observed a great deal of distrust of senior managers because ‘if they had been doing their job, we wouldn’t be in this position’ and that distrust is often articulated as ‘how do we know you have got it right this time’.

    In the West, our organisations are predominantly hierarchical and change tends to be imposed top down – yet 70% of initiatives fail to achieve the results they promised at the start. There are other more effective approaches, to do with mobilising the workforce to define the problem and design the solution, but that requires those in charge to relinquish control and that is not something we are good at.