Change Management and Design Thinking for Law Firms

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As the legal world continues to go through massive change, how is your law firm responding? Change management can be a challenge in the best of circumstances. But, if done right, you can bring innovation to your firm that helps you thrive. You’ll provide better service, and be more profitable.

We spoke with Matt Homann at the 2019 Clio Cloud Conference about design thinking and how lawyers can better approach change management at their firms. Matt is the Founder and CEO of Filament, a St. Louis-based design firm that designs and facilitates creative meetings for retreats, conferences, and offsites. Their work takes place all over the country.

Read on for key insights from Matt, and don’t forget to get your passes to the 2020 Virtual Clio Cloud Conference.

Teresa Matich:

So you used to be a lawyer: How does that impact the way you think about design?

Matt Homann:

That’s funny. I am a recovering lawyer. Some say you’re always a lawyer, I don’t know that I believe that to be true. It’s funny that the challenge, especially from a design standpoint, is to use that. People are so tied to that as a word that isn’t a legal word.

Even when you think, I did a workshop yesterday on client service design and used the term “design.” It’s a word that really people struggle with in legal, probably more than nearly any other industry.

Teresa Matich:

Why do you think that is?

Matt Homann:

Because if you talk to a lawyer and you list all the things they do, design is never on that list. They write, they read, they speak, they advocate, they do all of these things. Even though truthfully, when you think about design in its purest sense, it isn’t about drawing a picture or building a logo. It is really about trying to build a process in a way that is repeatable and useful to the audience for whom you’re designing it.

We always struggle when we talk to lawyers, especially about the word design. It is almost always out of the vocabulary. When I talk about designing meetings, retreats, conferences, offsites, and that sort of thing, we just try and build better ways for smart people to think together better. We want to do in the room things you can only do in the room. I don’t want there to necessarily be a lot of information delivery. I’d rather it be insight discovery. Most of our model is built around collaboration, small-group problem solving, that sort of thing.

Teresa Matich:

When you’re doing these projects, what’s the biggest misconception about design that you run into from lawyers?

Matt Homann:

People generally tend to underestimate their audience’s tolerance for novelty. If we’re working with a law firm to do a law firm retreat, for example, even if we’re at the managing partner level, they’re spending hours of time, which are very valuable hours, worried that their partners or their lawyers won’t take the leap, won’t be creative.

The truth is that lawyers are creative all the time. They’re just creative for their clients. When you turn their attention to thinking about their own business or thinking about it in a different way, they’re a wonderful audience, but at the planning process, most people get a little scared of this idea that “I’d rather do what we’ve always done,” the precedent-based profession that is law, than try something new. It’s really less about reluctance on the design side and more on the innovation side.

Teresa Matich:

Interesting. That makes sense though, because the lawyers—as part of their duty—you have to be a little bit risk averse, and sometimes that just bleeds into being change averse.

Matt Homann:

I’ll push back on that, in that it depends upon what they need to be risk averse for. There’s nothing that says that I need to be risk averse when it comes to advising my clients. The client should be making the risk calibration. I should be giving a range so my clients have options, both at the high risk, big payoff, low risk, low payoff.

What happens is that lawyers take that risk aversion and then they translate it into the business model challenges. There’s nothing that says that I have to base everything I’ve done on precedent when it comes to designing my pricing model, or when it comes to serving my clients in a different way.

As we think about, especially with the client-service focus that Clio was really pushing this year with some of the data that was released in the Legal Trends Report, I think the biggest challenge is going to be lawyers thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’ve got all these ideas, but I can’t do it all. It’s too big a risk because my competitors aren’t doing it.”

I’ve always thought that if your competitors aren’t doing it, that’s a signal you should be trying something versus a signal you should be not doing it.

Teresa Matich:

So how can lawyers use principles of design to make themselves more profitable and efficient?

Matt Homann:

I think, again, I’ll go back to, and it’s not to switch out the word necessarily, but the idea isn’t necessarily about designing something, it’s about experimenting and iterating. We oftentimes think in the work we do that I want you to think about a problem or two or three that you want to solve and frame it as a question. All right, how might we deliver a better customer experience? And then you’re able to break it down through every phase of that customer experience. From finding the lawyer, even parking in your parking lot and finding your office, all the way towards getting your bill, closing the matter, hopefully having them recommend you again. At each stage of that process, I want to know what that customer wants most.

The example I gave in my workshop yesterday was the lines at Disney. When you’re in line at Disney World, you want the line to move faster. And so what Disney does is they use the principles of design and innovation to think about multiple ways to solve for that question.

On the one hand, they make the line move faster for everyone when they can. We might add another car to the Magic Mountain ride. We might try and shorten the cycle times to get more people through the ride. But then they do something that’s really clever that maybe comes from the design perspective—they then decide, well, if we can’t make it faster anymore for everybody, what if we make it faster for some? A FastPass. If you pay extra, you get a jump to the front of the line.

They also help people perceive how long it takes in different ways. If I turn around and say I can’t see the entire line, or I’m being entertained by characters, or it feels like things are shifting as I’m going through from stage to stage to stage, all of those are fundamentally designed challenges that have been solved.  But really once lawyers need to understand that the key thing their customers want is at every step of the journey versus them wanting a good result at the end.

I want to know, when my bill comes, how much I owe. I want, before I open the envelope, if I’m getting it in an envelope, to know what it’s going to be. I want predictability, for example, or certainty. Then they can jump in and start to apply some of these principles around what are some experiments I might try? What is my hypothesis?

If I go from those experiments, and I try a handful of experiments, and I learn something, those experiments don’t have to apply to everyone all at once and they don’t have to be big. 

It could be that I want to redesign my bill and I’m going to do it by hand the first time. I’m going to send it to my client that I love, who will never fire me, and ask them what they think. That’s an experiment. And then the next experiment might be two or three of those versions before you’re investing in new technology or a designer to make it look all pretty, etcetera.

Because then you move from experiments to pilots, from pilots to projects, from projects to initiatives. And so really the lesson that I would wish lawyers would pay more attention to is that it’s okay to start really small and you don’t have to treat everyone exactly the same.

From Clio’s perspective, you guys have been doing A/B testing since the very beginning. And the reason it’s only A/B is that if you have A, B, C, D, E, F, G, it’s hard to understand which variable you’ve changed, and what gets you the result that you achieve.

But it is totally fine for lawyers to spend a little time thinking, “Here’s something small I might try and I’ll see what happens, and share those experiments with their clients, with their staff, with their teams, and take those as a chance to build these muscles of innovation.”

Teresa Matich:

Well, and I think that’s a really important point. The experimenting and the muscles of innovation, because there’s a lot of tradition and keeping process the same in law firms. So even the willingness to experiment and innovate and get comfortable with a new process, not just being the new thing that you’re going to stick with, but it being this chain of innovation, just even flexing that muscle and getting into that mindset is something new, right?

Matt Homann:

It’s really hard. It’s something lawyers haven’t been taught. You’re in an environment, unlike a startup, and this is always interesting in the startup communities that we’ve been involved with, that everyone is excited about the new shiny, shiny idea. There’s a significant amount of support for building something new.

In law—and this was my problem when I was a practicing lawyer in southern Illinois near St. Louis, Missouri—I would try something new and my peers would look at me like I was an idiot, or like I had two heads, and I learned that the reason they were trying to talk me out of building new things wasn’t because they thought they would fail. From my perspective, it’s that they were afraid they’d have to change with me.

When you’re in an industry where everyone’s time is their stock-in-trade, where they’re billing for every six minutes of their day, to then push to someone and say, “I want you to spend several hours thinking creatively about something,” they immediately know how much that will cost them without necessarily being … the ROI has to be almost immediately apparent.

If I spend five days trying to build something new, even if it has decades worth of value to my firm, to my customers, etcetera, those five days might cost me several thousands of dollars for an uncertain result. It’s easier to just do it the same way, because thankfully your peers are as slow to adopt new things as you are.

Teresa Matich:

Yes, but it’s the long game that you’re talking about.

Matt Homann:

It should be. But even on the innovation side, the smaller you make experiments, the faster those iterations come. What I think is really fascinating to me is you can start to share with your clients, here are some things that we’re doing to try and improve your experience. What do you think? You’ll be the only lawyer that those clients, as they talk to their peers about, see as innovative lawyers. “What do you mean?” “Well, he showed me three bills that he was designing that conveyed more information and he asked me which one I like better.” “Oh, really?” And then the other person says, “Well, I don’t understand anything about my bills that I get from my lawyer or I never thought lawyers were creative.”

Admittedly it’s a pretty low bar to jump over. But being that innovative lawyer, I think we’re getting closer and closer to it not seeming like the oxymoron that it has been for years and years.

Teresa Matich:

Well, you make a really good point about talking to your clients, interacting with them and asking what they think. Jack talked today, and his new book is about being a client-centered law firm. So I’m wondering what you think about that. Is that the future for law firms?

Matt Homann:

It is shocking to me that we’re still talking about that as the future for law firms. Think about how the business that lawyers are in is serving clients. Why does it feel like rocket science that we’re now incredibly talking about the client being at the center of that journey? But that’s where we are.

What I love about the book is it’s a way to just prompt people, to say it’s okay to think about building your firm for your clients first. Because we tend to build our firms modeling them on the other lawyers in the way they work, versus wondering how our clients might want us to codesign our firms with them.

Teresa Matich:

Right? Because it’s like anything, you’re going through a legal situation, it’s very scary and you want to have a measure of control as the client, even though you’re not the expert.

Matt Homann:

That’s right. And even if it’s not a measure of control. I don’t care if I’m on an airplane and I’m not in the cockpit, but we’re sitting on the tarmac. I just want to know. I want my pilot to come on the PA and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to be delayed for about 10 more minutes while the weather clears in Chicago. No one’s going to miss their connection. We’re going to be fine when we take off.”

Just even removing that uncertainty in that moment is important for me. I don’t need any control, but we’ve all been on airplanes where we don’t get that notice and all of a sudden our mind starts spinning. That’s even more true in stressful situations.

When lawyers are serving their clients, and almost always by definition, unless you’ve got a sophisticated client doing business law that’s in their ordinary course of business, you’re always dealing with people who would rather be somewhere else. If you give them every reason to believe that they’d rather be somewhere else, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m really excited about this move. And to be fair, many lawyers have been thinking these ways for a long time, but there’s never been a really great place for them to share those ideas.

Teresa Matich:

How do you help law firms implement change successfully so that they can get there?

Matt Homann:

Well, change, it depends on the size of the firm. Change is this really weird animal in that so many people think about change management. Let’s build something. Let’s buy something. Let’s adopt something. Let’s change a process. And then at the very end you come in and say, okay, now let’s manage change.

People don’t want to be changed because they lose something. They lose knowledge with an old way of doing things. They lose power. They lose status. They lose comfort. They lose the ability to do something in a simple way, even if it fundamentally is more complicated.

Where we’ve been doing it, a model that we’ve been building, is around change advocacy. If you wanted to implement a new system, or build a new process, you should build a parallel team, because, and I’ll get to this in a second, usually the team that’s in charge of building something new are experts and you tend to get subject-matter experts that might not otherwise be leaders in the firm, other partners, because they don’t have the technological expertise, so they’re not in that practice group.

But think about building a parallel team to your design team, for lack of a better term, and they’re the change advocacy team. Their job is to tell the stories throughout the entire process. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Why is it taking so long? Why is it costing so much? But they’re telling stories to answer the reasons why the change is coming, so it doesn’t seem so unfamiliar at the end when the change managers come in, magically snap their fingers, and expect everyone to get onboard.

Teresa Matich:

Yes, exactly. Change management is tough at the best of times.

Matt Homann:

Change is hard for everybody all the time. We as humans are designed to notice change, but we’re not designed to adapt to it particularly quickly. One thing that we’ve seen, and especially where storytelling is so important, is that if I tell you the beginning of a story and the end of a story, your mind can’t help but make up the middle. That’s what humans do. If I don’t tell you the end of the story, God knows what’s going to happen.

But even if I tell you the beginning and the end, if you’re a pessimist, you’re going to make that into a horror story. And horror stories are way more fun to share. No one goes to the movies to see a movie where there’s no conflict and everything is happily ever after from the beginning to the end. Even Disney movies have a villain.

If I think about change in particular, it’s really more a storytelling challenge than anything. How do you tell better stories from start to finish? How do you make the gaps between the beginning and the end, smaller? Even if it’s chapter headings, if you’re using a metaphor for a book, that storytelling becomes so crucial and lawyers should be good at that, but they don’t think about telling stories to the people they need to tell stories to. They’re so focused on telling their client’s stories, they rarely tell their own.

Teresa Matich:

That makes sense. What are some of the more tactical errors that you see lawyers and law firms making when they’re trying to implement change?

Matt Homann:

I think the number one error is they try to change everything for everybody all at once. Pulling off the Band-Aid doesn’t work. You’ve got to get people on board, as we were just talking about. You’ve got to do things in small increments and you’ve got to get people engaged in feeling like they’re owning some of this work, even if it’s a focus group, even if it’s an opportunity to weigh in.

The second thing, and this is a tactical and strategic error that lawyers make all the time, is they assume that the people who are being billed, the fee earners, are the only people who matter. I’ve seen firms that have implemented significant changes to technology or otherwise, and then just told their staff, who’s engaging with it far more hours in the day, “Here’s what we just bought, here’s what we’re going to use.”

When that staff may have been a far more sophisticated consumer in the purchase cycle, they may have been able to design or make choices early on, if we’re talking about technology, but add to that if you’re making changes to process, or to ways of working, or business model, not just engaging your staff, because they have way better insights on client and customer service and you as a lawyer do, but how do you engage your clients? How do you get them to the table? Because number one, they’ll be shocked that they were asked, and they will have amazing ways of engaging and sharing things that they want because they’ve never been asked by many other service providers before.

Teresa Matich:

Do you have a story of a specific law firm that you’ve helped implement change that really sticks with you?

Matt Homann:

We’re working with one right now and, again, more of our work is happening in Fortune 100 companies, school districts, nonprofits, but even there’s a law firm in Oklahoma and we’ve built this new strategy model for them, that instead of saying here are the four pillars of our strategy that always look like a bad PowerPoint slide, a Greek temple, we’re helping them design four significant questions that they need to be answering better next year than they are this year.

The strategic question model is something new for us that we’ve built, it’s that we want to find the questions that, if they are answered well, will be transformative for the firm. And then what you’re able to do is that—for each of those questions—you’re able to focus the entire energy of the firm, staff, peer professionals, clients, etcetera, into how do we answer that question better?

And you’re able to come up with what our X and Y is, from X to Y, how we transfer, how we move, how we change. You’re able to also think about small steps. What experiments are we going to try, and so on and so forth.

Because the traditional strategy for law firms is almost always a binder full of strategy that sits on a shelf that’s five years old that nobody looks at. So we thought, how would we make it more agile and creative in a way to engage everyone in the firm versus just the managing partners or the leaders?

Teresa Matich:

Yes. Something that’s really important as well is giving everybody ownership. I think when you talk about storytelling, allowing people to tell their own story, without letting it become a horror story of course, about what their day-to-day work is now going to look like and what that means for them.

Matt Homann:

Right. And why we’re doing it. The why has to come from why I’m doing it, not why they’re doing it. It always feels like to save money, or to make my life harder, those are the horror stories we tell, but its about connecting up whatever the initiative is, whatever the change is, whatever the product, the process, anything that is new. That’s exactly right. How do we connect it up so everyone in the firm can say, this is why we’re doing it and this is why I’m doing it.

Teresa Matich:

What’s the biggest challenge you run into when you are working with law firms on change management?

Matt Homann:

There are so many. Part of it is again that you’re not selling and engaging with one person. You are trying to have 50 people, or 100 people, or 800 people all believe they have a voice in the design of what you’re doing. Anyone who has engaged with large law firms really struggles with that, because every lawyer seems to think that their business is completely portable and if they leave, 100% of their business comes with them. So they have a much higher sense of their power in the organization than might actually be true.

But the other challenge, and this is probably the best and the most fun of what we do is, once we get lawyers engaged, the challenge is to get them to shut up. I mean that in the best possible way.

Our work is designed around collaboration. Even if we have 1,000 lawyers in the room, we’re at round tables, we’re having conversations. It’s easy to get lawyers to talk about themselves. And so that’s the model. What have you done that’s worked? What have you done that has been interesting? How would you change things? And then it’s getting them to stop because they become so engaged because the luxury they have of finally being able to talk about their business and how to make it better is a luxury they don’t get very often because again, every six minutes of their day when they bill by the hour is allocated either to making the firm money or to, air quotes, losing the firm money because you’re not billing.

Teresa Matich:

Absolutely. How can lawyers, or paralegals, or legal admins, or anybody working in the law firm that has a change project that they want to implement their firm, how do they get buy in and move that forward? What’s your advice?

Matt Homann:

I think one of the ways is to figure out who that change advocacy team should be. Who has political capital to spend, who’s listened to, who are the people that people look up to, and who are your advocates and who are your heretics. Get people on that team to at least understand the why and to help be on your end to help keep your peers communicating that out.

The other thing, because you asked specifically about paralegals or staff, is that there are innovative things that they can do that do not require much attention at all from the managing partner or the leadership team.

It’s about building that culture of what did we try today? How did it work? What did we learn? And then telling that story and now let’s rinse and repeat and do something else. That thing becomes noticeable and it’s empowering to people who otherwise expect all of the leadership decisions to come from on high.

Teresa Matich:

What are some examples of something that a paralegal or a legal administrative assistant might want to experiment with within a law firm?

Matt Homann:

It could be making a process easier. It could be around training and learning. It could literally be around, here’s a way to fix something that annoys clients. That’s one thing I didn’t know about before, but it’s important, is there’s this magical phrase that you can ask clients about what is annoying about this X, Y, or Z, whatever the process is. If you ask them what they hate about your firm, they’re going to be very reluctant to answer. Hate is such a strong term. If you ask my wife what she hates about me, there’s a couple of things I think, but if you ask her what annoys her about me, it’s almost how much time you have and pour another glass of wine.

That thinking about what annoys them about the work they do and if they are engaging at all with clients, certainly paralegals fit this category, how do they understand some of those things that annoy clients and find some simple ways to smooth over that so you have a chance to improve the client experience in ways that might not even be seen by the lawyers.

Teresa Matich:

What do you think is the benefit for law firms of improving the client experience?

Matt Homann:

In theory, it should be more money. This is an unpopular opinion, but I think we’re going to have significantly less lawyers doing real legal work 10 years from now than we do today. People retiring, clients building technology that requires lawyers to not be necessary, not to do legal work, but to just reduce risks, to make better decisions, etcetera.

I oftentimes think about the anecdote, the two hikers are in the woods and they see the bear and the one says, “We can’t outrun the bear.” The other says, “I just have to outrun you.” I think over the next decade, there is an unbelievable amount of money to be made from firms who are outrunning their peers, who are doubling down on client service, who are invested in technology, who are just thinking differently about pricing and the way that they do their work.

Because when everyone starts to look the same and you’re like, wow, I’m not only the person who returned the call fastest, I have the most navigable website. Our process to design your case works better. That’s where you’re going to see significant advantages and those are the things people talk about. No one talks about how clean their dry cleaner got their clothes, but they do talk about, my dry cleaner stays open late or I forgot something, they delivered it to me in person. They allow me to donate my plastic bags. Whatever those little tiny things are.

And that’s the one last thing that I’ll share on this issue: Look to the people who are delivering amazing customer service to your clients. Don’t look to other lawyers. Find where they go, who their service heroes are. Is it Airbnb? Is it Chewy? Is it the dry cleaner, the dentist, or the coffee shop?

Look and see what they’re doing that makes them special and find a way to apply some of those same lessons to your practice, because your clients will notice and those will be the stories they’ll tell.

Teresa Matich:

Amazing. That’s amazing. Anything else you’d like to add?

Matt Homann:

It’s just so great to be here. I was at the first one, the first Clio Cloud Conference in Chicago, and I remember spending some time with Jack and Rian and George and a handful of the dramatically smaller team up in Vancouver. Even as we were talking about this, what’s been amazing to me about this conference is that—because it has built up from such a small size in such a short amount of time—it feels like all the new attendees are being brought into the family, versus just showing up at a conference, because it doesn’t take very long to find someone who’s been at three, four, five, or more, and they’re like, “I’ll see you again next year.”

So just thank you for having me. It’s been amazing to watch how Clio’s customer service focus is throughout this entire conference. Lawyers can go back after hearing this podcast and after being here and they might say, “Wow, what did I love so much about what the experience felt like? How can I apply this to my firm?” There are lessons they can take even back to their client experience from this conference.

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