Lawyers No Longer Have a Choice: Change or Else

September 13, 2016

What kind of lawyer are youWhile it is relatively universal to be resistant to change, the legal profession has been particularly reluctant. The practice of law is transforming rapidly due to the economic distress of the past decade, the rise of new technologies, and a generation of millennial lawyers who grew up using technology. So why is it that lawyers are so reluctant to change?

A focus on precedent

The very nature of the practice of law, and the U.S. legal system as a whole, largely rests on guidance from previous case law or interpretation of legislative intent. Thus, one underlying reason may be the legal profession’s focus on precedent. Additionally, the practice of law is inherently risk averse; lawyers are known for writing long memos that issue warnings of what might potentially go wrong, and transactional attorneys often draft from precedent, rather than creating documents from scratch.

Another factor is the legal education system, which hasn’t evolved in decades, despite declining law school enrollment and more limited job prospects. Technology and the business side of law are overlooked; law schools continue to emphasize litigation and the Socratic method of instruction.

The psychology of change

Research from psychology suggests there may be a reason behind lawyers’ resistance to change: Many may have a fixed mindset, instead of a growth mindset.

A fixed mindset is the belief that one’s success is based more on inherent intelligence than on effort. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, people with this mindset work toward “performance goals,” a focus on looking smart even if there’s no learning in the process. This fosters a fear of failure, and in turn, reluctance to go outside of one’s comfort zone. For lawyers, this outlook was reinforced, early on, by a school system that praised intelligence and discouraged risk-taking. It continues with the culture in law firms and legal departments. Compare that with a growth mindset – the belief that personality traits are malleable, whereas the a fixed mindset holds that personality traits don’t change.

Benefits of being growth minded

There’s no shortage of challenges in managing change and ways to improve, given the rapid transformation of the legal space. In-house counsel who become more growth-minded will view these challenges as opportunities, and their resilience will better position them to help themselves, and in turn, their business partners.

Shifting to a growth mindset can help corporate counsel manage change in the workplace and achieve success in several ways. Too many lawyers operate under the motto, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Just because a business model worked in the past does not mean it will continue to fare well. By acknowledging the changes in the legal space and switching to a growth mindset you will avoid being blindsided, and become a much better business partner.

The only thing constant is …

Change is inevitable. In the legal space, the pace of change has been accelerated by the economic downturn and a surge in new technologies. These changes are significant and they’re permanent. Attorneys who adapt and are proactive – using a growth mindset – can turn changing market drivers into opportunities. In a traditionally risk-averse profession, lawyers who don’t adapt to change are making the riskiest move of all.

Read more on what is keeping lawyers from changing, how a growth mindset can change your legal department, and how to start making some changes now.

Part of the Legal Department 2025 Series