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Why Lawyers Hate Change: If We Examine Our Attitudes, We Can Understand Ourselves

Lawyers, like everybody else, are more comfortable doing things the way they always have.

By Gary A. Munneke

Why Lawyers Hate Change: If We Examine Our Attitudes, We Can Understand Ourselves LAWYERS HATE change. It's hard to find a legal tech seminar or article that fails to mention how resistant lawyers are to change. Without question, there's lots of anecdotal evidence to support the proposition that lawyers are more comfortable doing things the way they have always done them than learning new ways and systems that involve emerging technologies.

The recriminations about lawyer technophobia, however, most often focus on why lawyers cannot afford to resist change (images of tsunamis and Armageddon are generally invoked to punctuate the need for lawyers to change their attitudes.) But back in the office, life goes on. Changes occur not like a tidal wave, but almost imperceptibly -- like the rising sea level at the end of an ice age.

So why is it that most lawyers, faced with evidence that change is afoot and that technology can help them cope, are reluctant participants in the technology revolution? Perhaps if we examine our attitudes about change, we will not fear it as much, or at least we will better understand ourselves.

Here are 10 possible explanations:

1. Everybody hates change, so lawyers hate change.

This recognizes that the status quo is comfortable whether you are a lawyer or not. To say that lawyers are subject to the same fears as people generally may help lawyers to absolve themselves of guilt for resisting change, but it does not help them address the problem. Fear of the unknown may be a human frailty, but lawyers still need to confront that human predisposition and confront change proactively.

2. Lawyers are trained to look to the past (precedent) and not the future, to find answers.

Some say legal training does not help lawyers to cope with change because it tends to move us in the direction of analyzing what has already happened, rather than what has not yet occurred. In truth, legal reasoning also includes predicting future outcomes based on prior decisions of courts.

3. Legal reasoning does not always help lawyers think creatively.

This deductive approach to problem solving works better in a stable environment, where the future is actually a reflection of the past. In periods of transformational change, however, history loses its predictive value. Innovative, creative, intuitive and inductive thinking are more likely to discover new paths to follow than rational, organized, deductive inside-the-box thinking.

4. The price of legacy for lawyers is complacency.

Argh! Legacy is the shorthand term used to describe those individuals and interests who have a stake in the status quo. They already have resources, reputations, position and power. It is difficult to convince the "haves" in society that things could (or should) change.

The "have nots" are often more prepared for revolution because they have no stake in the status quo. The trick for lawyers may be to find ways to leverage legacy into an asset in the evolving legal marketplace. Complacency is not a virtue in an era where change predominates.

5. The short-term benefits of implementing change seldom outweigh the costs of implementation.

Lawyers are hopelessly myopic. It may be that legal work makes us that way. We strive to handle the problem at hand, and so we tend to focus on information that is right in our faces, while ignoring information that we do not need to answer the immediate question. In the context of practice management, particularly in areas involving technology, short-term expediency often dictates decisions. Whether it is the cost of upgrading hardware or the learning curve for implementing new software, it is often easier and cheaper to keep the present equipment and system.

Practitioners need to weigh the long-term costs and benefits of proposed changes as well as the immediate consequences in order to reach sound decisions. Frequently the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs.

6. There is too much to learn, and no one to help.

One impediment to change is the monumental volume of information that buffets us every day. We are often left with the feeling that we can never get enough to make informed decisions.

Books, articles and manuals take time, while consultants, help lines and advisors either cost too much or do not tell us what we need to hear.

Left to our own devices, we are sometimes immobilized by indecision. In order to cope with this information overload, lawyers need first to define the problem in a manageable way, second to do their own homework, and third use outside assistance critically.

If using a consultant can save or earn you thousands of dollars every week, the one-time investment of a thousand dollars or so is not very expensive. If you amortize the cost of help over the life of the advice, expertise may be downright cheap.

7. Law practices traditionally have required little capital investment, but the requirements for capitalizing modern technology burdensome.

"Back in the day" all it took to start a law practice was a desk, a chair, an Underwood typewriter and some paper. Those days are gone, although some lawyers still seem to act like they still exist.

Face it: it takes money to operate a law practice today; it takes capital to finance it in the beginning and cash flow to keep it going. Law firms must make the investment in technology at the outset and continue to invest in it in every budget cycle.

8. Too much work, too little time (or "Do I deal with the clients or deal with change?")

We have deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, court appearances to make and bottom lines to consider.

The choice often is between serving real clients or dealing with management problems that possess less immediacy (of course, when your system crashes because you have not dealt with a problem, then you will understand the meaning of immediacy.

Firm leaders need to allocate designated time to management functions generally and to technology specifically.

It may help to designate a staff member to be responsible for handling particular tasks, such as researching pricing for alternative systems the firm is considering, but in the end, the partners need to devote quality time to decisions that impact the quality of the firm's services.

9. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The old adage may still have some force. We all know some lawyer who is captivated by every passing fad, who has to have every new toy, and who is forever tinkering with procedures; for this lawyer, change is more than a constant, it is a lifestyle.

There is certainly a tension between the need to modify systems in anticipation of future change and to maintain continuity in the delivery of legal services.

Lawyers cannot ignore the fact that obsolescence is a reality in out ever-changing practice landscape, and that even if something isn't "broke" today, at some point in time it will be, if not "broke," at least obsolete.

10. I'll get around to it tomorrow.

Procrastination is so easy. The bigger the problem, the easier it is to put off. But problems usually do not go away if we ignore them.

If anything they get bigger until they cannot be ignored. Whether the reason for the procrastination is our aversion to conflict or our need for a crisis to motivate us to act, waiting to deal with an issue is seldom productive.

Other Reasons

Other reasons for why lawyers struggle so with technology undoubtedly exist.These represent some of the major ones.

The question lawyers need to ask is whether change is appropriate strategically for the organization and whether the firm will be better off in the long run by making needed changes today.

It helps to think about the big picture in order to make decisions about day-to- day changes.

Little steps are often easier to manage than major changes in policies and procedures, but unless little steps are consistent with a longer-term objective, it is likely that they will be difficult to .

Any or all of the 10 resistance factors described above can be used as a justification not to change.

Gary A. Munneke is professor of law at Pace University School of Law in White Plains, N.Y., and a member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board.

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