Sceptical lawyers must engage with ‘change management’ in the face of strong threats to stability.

Scrooge changed, but attempts to change things aren’t always – how to put it politely? – quite as successful.

For the final issue of a magazine I edited (The In-House Lawyer) I wrote a feature on ‘change management’. It wasn’t the topic I’d have chosen to go out on – it involved too many interviews with change management ‘professionals’, a breed that doesn’t play well with sceptical lawyers.

Many who know a corporate environment will have heard the fairly risible lines they tend to use. Partners, associates, trainees and support staff who question the wisdom of a plan aren’t just ‘fighting change’ or ‘burying their heads’ in an increasingly crowded bit of ‘the sand’.

They are told they are experiencing ‘grief’. Can you feel the pat on the head? The arm coming round you as you’re told ‘I’ve been there’?

Still as my February 2009 standfirst noted: ‘With the economy on the rocks, businesses in most sectors face a “change management” programme.’ For some very big reasons, lawyers will be subject to much more of this in 2017.

That means being pulled away from the routine of advice, business development, learning and management to hear of ‘burning platforms’ being created; of ‘the lion in the room’.

On a particularly bad day, you might hear of ‘external focus in reality’, or see a diagram where pillars labelled ‘motivation’ support circles labelled ‘vision’.

The change programme may even be reassuringly underpinned by ‘Jungian theory’ (though why you need a superannuated Jungian consultant if your psyche is self-regulating is never made clear).

But I’m afraid sensible sceptics everywhere need to engage with some of this in 2017. The items that adversely affect the legal economy look too strong.

1. Last night a robot took my job

Automation of certain legal tasks, in part made possible through the growing use of ‘artificial intelligence’, comes at a time when commercial clients want parts of their legal bill reduced. Hence also the use by elite law firms of lower-cost offices in Belfast, the Midlands, the north, Warsaw, Manila and so on.

The searches a computer can now do were what a very junior lawyer was paid to do while they learned to do the things ‘robots’ can’t do – acquire judgement, learn client handling skills, become the fabled ‘trusted adviser’.

The sensible sceptic is needed here. Not to take a hammer to a robot or stop removal vans going up the M1 – these things are going to happen.

But perhaps to establish what the new routes to trusted adviser are, how a firm’s value and identity is maintained through big reorganisations, and whether the people working in Belfast or Manila have a way to make it to the top here at HQ.

2. Financial stability

In an informal chat last week, a veteran City lawyer reflected that the big difference now, compared to when he started his career, was that back then bigger law firms simply never failed.

What events like the implosion of Dewey & LeBoeuf and the current well-publicised problems of some international firms show is that the market is crowded, that attempts to play at the top level involve high-cost gambles.

Firms hiring newly qualifieds at huge salaries are betting on the market in 8-10 years.

If firms can’t easily absorb market shocks and volatility, they will restructure, and that means dreaded external consultants.

They’ll restructure for cashflow – but can they really have an eye on the firm’s values and its very long-term future? Sensible sceptics just might. Leadership and consultants have sometime only identified a ‘quick fix’, dressed up as something ‘deep’.

3. How to talk

Language matters when times are dramatic or bad. Consultants, holed up with the finance director and other senior management, soon develop their own – language that sounds strange to the rest of the organisation, and which may also be designed to conceal things they haven’t addressed.

How does language ‘land’ with people affected? And what is it hiding? These things are important.

In all this there’s a game to play. The change consultants aren’t going to be turned out of the temples of law. Instead, sensible sceptics advise, you may find yourself saying the following sorts of thing.

‘The motivation pillar’s obscuring the arrow to the vision circle – better to use a paragraph of text?’

‘I know, but we need to take the Freudians with us.’

‘We need a line clients/staff/the media will understand.’

‘I absolutely see it – but let’s not call it grief. We need folk on board who’ve actually lost someone close.’

The alternative, of course, is to leave the change management ‘professionals’ to it. An hour in the room with almost any of them should remove that temptation.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor