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Digital Transformation & Operations

Successful law firm tech change management requires buy-in from the top-down & bottom-up

Zach Warren  Manager for Enterprise Content for Technology & Innovation / Thomson Reuters Institute

Zach Warren  Manager for Enterprise Content for Technology & Innovation / Thomson Reuters Institute

Ensuring the implementation of the latest technological innovation or newest software isn't easy, but there are steps that every law firm can take to make their efforts more likely to succeed

Since the 1990s, a common refrain when attempting to implement any new piece of software or technology transformation has been to remember the three legs of the tripod: People, Process, and Technology. While the Technology and Process can be complex to be sure, the most difficult part may be the People portion.

Any new technology will only be successful if an organization’s employees and partners are willing to actually use it. And while many organizations recognize this fact — often soliciting some sort of feedback to measure it — most believe their change management processes may fall short. Even among organizations that felt their change management processes were successful, more than two-thirds (67%) said they felt they weren’t receiving as much value as they could out of the change, according to a 2021 survey by McKinsey & Co.

Particularly among precedent-heavy professional services like legal and tax & accounting, many change management programs often focus in one direction — either top-down, to make sure that management continues to support the project; or bottom-up, to make sure that the project is something that employees will use. The best change management projects, however, need to have both. Here are six strategies that organizations have said they focus on to ensure worthwhile tech implementations.

1. Adopt a growth-centric mindset — It should seem self-evident that the goal of a change management project actually is to affect change. Even with new technologies in hand, a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset often remains. If leadership is taking the time to invest in a project, then it should take the time to think about how the project could result in wider organizational change. Projects with a direct path to growing the organization are usually received more fondly than those that just focus on keeping the lights on.

Kenneth Jones, chief technologist at law firm Tanenbaum Keale, notes that modern technologies may be tougher to institute due to a lack of familiarity — but that doesn’t absolve firms from trying. “All the work in CLM [contract lifecycle management], in AI, in blockchain, and more, certainly that’s very hard to measure and quantify,” Jones notes. “But the most forward-thinking executives and law firm leaders would understand, that’s the way the world is moving.”

2. Look at how employees actually work — Too often, organizations that want to become more innovative respond by purchasing a piece of technology without thinking about how users would actually use it. Even the most innovative artificial intelligence isn’t an immediate panacea. Leaders should think about a specific problem that they want the technology to solve before ever purchasing it. That way, they will save a lot of change management headaches if any new technology can fit easily into employees’ day-to-day work.

And if the technology will result in a major change by necessity, that information should be communicated from management early and often, says Shearman & Sterling chief knowledge & client value officer Meredith Williams-Range. “We have an engagement plan — not just a training plan, not just a comms plan, but an engagement plan — with every project that we do, especially when it has a huge user impact score,” she says. “If it’s going to take them out of their norm day to day, we have to have an engagement plan to do that.”

3. Develop metrics for success — At times, there can be a tendency for organizations to say that if a tool’s being used, then its implementation is successful. But the devil is in the details. “Do you have logs? Do you have any tracking that says how much are our products being used?” Jones asks. “Because without the data, it’s all qualitative, right?”

Rees Morrison, a legal industry consultant, agrees. “When a lawyer does legal research, they’re probably not thinking about how much time they’re online doing that or how many times they do it,” Morrison says. “But somebody else can start drawing some patterns or making decisions about whether a subscription is worthwhile or not.”

4. Get stakeholders involved early — Particularly with large-scale projects that needs lots of top-level support, there can be a natural urge to begin the implementation process straight away to make sure that support remains consistent. Resist that urge. Bringing in user stakeholders from across the organization takes work, to be sure; but ultimately it will not only provide feedback earlier in the process, it allows those users to become more invested in the project’s success.

Range-Williams notes that in implementing the cloud-based version of the iManage document management system, her Shearman & Sterling team had more than 2,000 engagement sessions. It’s a pattern she wants to bring to future implementations as well. “It’s that we’ve got to get our people raring to go, understanding what this can do for them, breaking the mold of what, say, an 1876 financial system looks like to what one looks like in 2022 and beyond.”

5. Encourage feedback, and not only at the beginning — Often, users of new technology will be asked during implementation how they feel about a tool — whether they feel it saves them time, whether the user interface is intuitive, etc. If the answer is no, that’s a sign that something needs to change. Indeed, the sunk cost fallacy has plagued many tech implementations, and it’s natural for users to become disengaged if they feel like their negative feedback isn’t being heard. But don’t take yes as a sign that all is well either. Users will discover more issues the longer they work with the tool, and continual feedback helps ensure that dissatisfaction doesn’t turn that yes into a no.

“I do believe that folks in general like their opinion being asked,” Morrison says. “Otherwise they feel they’re just serfs and nobody cares. But if they come and ask users, ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you like it?’ and a few questions related to that, they feel they get a voice.”

6. Actualize feedback and communicate successes — Modern technology implementations can take a long time, from purchasing to architecting to soliciting feedback and going live. If users have been with you for every step of the process, it makes sense that all parties involved will feel some burn out. However, technology isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it proposition; there’s likely always something that can be fixed or optimized. To encourage those users to stick with you for the next implementation, make sure to communicate how the project has gone.

“If you gather metrics from people, I think you owe it to them to get back with something,” Morrison says. “It shouldn’t go into the black box of the firm and the associates never find out what happened.” Instead, he adds, the proposition should be that if employees give their time and thoughts, management should return with some findings and some decisions about what the organization is going to do about it.

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