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What is the most important thing that a law firm or group of lawyers can do to respond better to fast change in their market?


Law firm partners have problems with change.

Law firm partners have inescapable roles as leaders of change in their firms – for good or bad. Either way, these roles take a significant investment of their time and intellect. Without their leadership, critical thinking and analysis, and ongoing involvement, any meaningful response to needed change is doomed.

Nonetheless, seeing the need for change and having the capacity to act on it are very different things. Partners tend to want to over-control the changes they make in their firms.

Simultaneously, they often show reluctance to use feedback to better understand the impacts of their decisions and their own strengths and limitations as change leaders. If partners know how to listen to clients, peers, and firm members – to really learn – they can quickly become more effective. Internally, decision-making, coaching and mentoring, the capacity to provide the right resources and tools and to promote the type of culture and infrastructure that is ready for action in times of change, all improve. This is because they know how to get useful information and then use it, not simply because they are willing to passively listen.

Too many partners want to keep the old culture and way of doing things, with the same rules, but somehow achieve different results. When this is true, listening suffers.

Listening to learn

Developing the capacity to initiate and respond to continuous change, individually and collectively, requires significant shifts in partner perceptions and leadership behaviors. And the single most important thing partners can do is listen to learn.

When partners start listening to each other, when they are more willing to start saying what needs to be said; when they make the time to ask questions, learn from and encourage each other, their performance capacity as a group and as a firm increases incrementally.

Listening to learn is straightforward, although not necessarily simple. When leaders really listen, they have to confront reality. That involves accepting that others may have different versions of the truth. When partners are able to suspend judgment and genuinely try to understand each other’s points of view, a more complex reality emerges. Along with that people begin to see options, possibilities and ideas that they didn’t see before.

When the focus is on understanding and finding ways to address priorities together, the outcomes are far different than if parties dig in, lecture each other, and try to convert one another to their respective versions of the truth. The experience of listening to learn can be frustrating and even scary. Partners may ask:

  • Do we really want to know what our clients, partners, lawyers and staff are thinking and feeling?
  • Do we really want to expose our assumptions and fears, so they can be publicly tested?

But what is the alternative? Shall we continue to put our heads in the sand or lull ourselves into a false sense of financial security and collegiality? If leaders don’t trust each other to listen to learn, they and their firms will not have the capacity to compete.

It takes courage and skill to listen to learn. Listening in a way that actually facilitates learning involves asking questions when you may not have the answers. Beyond not knowing, are you getting information from clients, for example, that you can really learn from? Information obtained under certain conditions may not be reliable. How do you get people to open up, share and trust your intentions?

Habitual ways of trying to maintain the status quo are especially risky. Think twice before lecturing, denying, blaming, over-explaining, getting defensive, shutting people out or ignoring evidence – however justified you may feel in your reactions. These behaviors shut down meaningful communication and innovations only occur in environments where people can both listen and learn.

Leadership, not control

It often seems easier, and more comfortable, to “do it myself.” Trying to control the process and the outcomes of all change and improvement issues too tightly can undermine needed buy in and input from others. More importantly, it damages the firm’s ability to initiate, innovate and respond.

People at all levels in the firm need to gain experiences, knowledge and skills so they can become adept and confident at spotting problems and opportunities, making decisions and leading change efforts – from big to small. The more informed and capable lawyers and staff are, the more likely it is that they will “bubble up” ideas and identify creative solutions when situations arise.

Sometimes partners purposefully withhold information so they do not have to deal with peoples’ questions, objections, and expectations – either to avoid confrontation or with the rationale that this will keep others – and themselves - more productive and focused on work. Yet, peoples’ questions and opinions will not go away. In the absence of useful information, gossip and misinformation might replace solid data and evidence they could use in their day to day decisions.

It’s not unusual for partners to try to control the “response to needed change” by limiting information, analysis, input, and decision-making to a very select group. Sometimes this makes sense. Yet, they also risk “blind spots” and the kind of “group think” that reinforces unconscious biases and assumptions that could lead them all over the cliff. An unwillingness to listen to learn – particularly from others who may represent dissenting voices – is usually counterproductive.

Likewise, if partners try to control a process to execute speedy predetermined solutions or “quick fixes” their unwillingness to listen to learn will likely come back to bite them. Unless there is a fire in the theater – and even possibly then - rushing to solutions, without scoping out the situation or considering options and without communicating about goals or planning how to execute them, can result in failure.

When partners habitually withdraw into client work as an escape from dealing with firm management and leadership issues, they send a visible message from the top, “I am not available to listen to learn.

If partners approach conversations with each other with a “win-lose” competitive mindset that suggests “If I’m right, you must be wrong” their chances of listening to learn are vastly decreased along with finding solutions to problems and new ways of working together.

A listening revolution

What happens when people don’t feel heard or understood?

What happens when achievement oriented and committed professionals think that their opinions are not welcome or that their ideas are not likely to be taken seriously?

What happens when law firms can’t respond quickly and effectively enough to both knowable and particularly, unknowable events in their markets?

Maybe what law firms need is a listening revolution!  What would it take for people to be ready for change every day? What evidence could we see in firms and in partners that know how to listen to learn? What would that look like? We already have observed listening revolutions in some law firms.

  • Law firms have continuous learning conversations about meaningful issues – in groups and one on one – with the expectation that listening to and trying to understand divergent views is the desired norm, not the dreaded exception.
  • People in these “listening revolution” law firms are self-organizing and more self-reliant, coming together to identify real issues, problems, and opportunities. They are more likely to find the best responses, rather than rely on quick fixes or a continuation of crisis-to-crisis improvisation.
  • The partners in these firms know that just “widening participation” doesn’t guarantee that the firm will learn, innovate, and succeed. More meetings are not the key to anything. Instead, in the listening revolution, when people come together they are prepared to participate and prepared to listen to learn – with relevant information and data, documentation, and the strategic and financial context. They understand and self-enforce group norms about how to respectfully work their way through disagreements and contentious issues.
  • “Wait and see” thinking is gone from these firms. They understand the consequences of not acting and are not willing to wait for them. They continually test their own assumptions and take nothing for granted. By listening to learn from each other, their clients, and from the business and competitive realities, they no longer rationalize away the need for change, but embrace it.
  • At the same time, the “listening revolution” law firm has all the markers of a financially healthy, growing, and competitive business. Partners and other members of the firm – along with their clients – trust and expect one another to listen to learn. That is the key to their success.

Barriers to listening, creativity, and innovation

We all have implicit biases. The question is, do we know how these biases limit our leadership capabilities and responses to needed change?

In order to function as professionals, we have had to learn how to weed out the “noise.” Lawyers are typically very good at knowing what to pay attention to from a legal perspective when interacting with clients, counter-parties, the courts, and their markets.

However, partners usually have less experience at navigating their firms successfully through continuous, unrelenting and often contentious issues of needed change.

A simple response is to listen more and judge less. If you are listening to learn, you are asking the kinds of questions that help others think and share their views, ideas and feelings, and that increase your knowledge and understanding of issues and people.

Beware of continual consensus and feigned collegiality in a partnership. These usually are red flags of complacency and not necessarily indicators of genuine trust.

Continuing innovation and creativity in a law firm depend on the continuing questioning and sometimes the complete destruction of the status quo. Leading a successful, innovative law firm is not for the faint of heart; but if you listen to learn as much as – or preferably more than – you hold forth your own “truth,” the results may be surprising. If you succeed in creating a culture that fosters open, questioning minds versus one that rewards people for keeping their heads low and their mouths shut, you are on the right track.

Very often what prevents partners from building a culture of creativity and innovation is their lack of knowledge of their choices and the absence of a credible way to give and receive feedback about their leadership effectiveness in their firms. When partners acknowledge the need for change and show a willingness to learn, use, and coach others in improved leadership behaviors, the firm becomes visibly and measurably stronger, internally and externally.

This internal strength is what gives law firms: the agility they need to make timely decisions; the trust they need in each other to delegate authority; and the capacity to set and achieve goals for individuals and teams. These goals don’t straight-jacket people, but give them the information and tools they need to respond confidently in imperfect and often unpredictable conditions.

A roadmap to better performance in uncertain times

Partners who know how to listen to learn – as leaders – are ready for change. They can make informed decisions about how much control to assume in a variety of continuously evolving conditions and situations because they are informed, and their firms are prepared. The partners are knowledgeable about themselves, their people, their clients and their competitive, strategic and financial priorities.

They ensure that each lawyer has the necessary leadership and business practice skills, such as listening to learn, to capably initiate and manage change opportunities.

They can also confidently delegate leadership responsibilities knowing that they have agreed professional standards of behavior in place that govern shared ethical and cultural beliefs and performance expectations. These expectations of one another inform decisions ranging from the big strategic issues to the everyday challenges and opportunities of effective client relations, time management, and business development.

Lisa M. Walker Johnson


This article is based on a paper presented by Lisa Walker Johnson to the 2018 Balkan Legal Forum, 14-15 June 2015, in Vienna, Austria. For more information about how Lisa and her colleagues at Walker Clark can guide your law firm to better perfomance in uncertain times, contact Lisa by e-mail or telephone one of the numbers at the bottom of this page.