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Six personality reasons why change may be particularly difficult in legal departments

If you are a general counsel frustrated by how hard it is to change ways of working in your department, perhaps it is some solace to understand why. From my experience as a consultant to legal departments and therefore a purported catalyst for change, I list six personality-based obstructions to doing things differently.

Solitary: Lawyers often work alone, not on teams, so they find it harder to pull all the oars at the same time, let alone change the stroke (See my post of April 5, 2009: teamwork and collaboration internally with 16 references.).

Ambitious: Often lawyers are competitive, which means they may oppose changes as an alteration of power or responsibility not to their liking. Result: heels dig in (See my post of Oct. 2, 2008: competitiveness with 29 references.).

Argumentative: Lawyers are intellectually combative. They don’t mind arguing about whether a proposed change makes sense or not. In truth, they enjoy the thrust and parry that extends decision-making! Even if they lose and a shift is rammed through, they can fall back on passive aggressive behavior (See my post of Jan. 17, 2006: passive-aggressive reactions.).

Cautious: Risk aversion slows down many lawyers. Many posts have discussed this style (See my post of Aug. 24, 2008: lawyers and risk averse behavior with 11 references.).

Craftsman: Professionalism gets in the way, in the sense that lawyers view themselves as craftspeople, not as mechanics or cogs in processes. Streamlining or improvement challenges their cherished autonomy and pursuit of excellence heedless of cost (See my post of Oct. 7, 2009: conflict between professional values and corporate values.).

Lemmings: Precedent strongly influences lawyers. “Who else has done this?”, they ask. It’s hard to change, be creative, and go off-road if you favor the path well-trodden by others.

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3 responses to “Six personality reasons why change may be particularly difficult in legal departments”

  1. Andrew Davis says:

    Hi Rees,
    There’s another reason that I think reinforces the above six. (Although experience-based rather than personality-based, it may well be equally causative.)
    Most in-house lawyers work in law firms before moving in-house. And I think their exposure to the billable hour has a big impact on their behavior. (Yes, I know the billable hour gets blamed for all of the world’s ills, but hear me out.)
    Billings have a huge impact on law firm revenues and on the careers of individual lawyers. This deters them from investing non-billable time today to become more efficient over the longer term.
    Even though, after a lawyer moves in-house, their day-to-day legal work is often no longer billable, I would argue that they have been trained to focus on just doing the work, rather than taking a step back to see if they could do it more productively.

  2. Excellent point: readers, what are some other consequences of most in-house lawyers having spent time inexternal law firms? Im going to post about Andrews point and extend it. Rees

  3. Jeff Boak says:

    Although this may fit under your headings of craftsmanship or caution, it occurs to me that, to the extent lawyers are averse to the overseas outsourcing of routine legal task, such as research, it may derive from the hours they spent as associates on such tasks.