NOTE:  We welcome our first Guest Geek Blogger, Laura Walters.  Don’t let Laura’s well-written post fool you, she’s just as geeky as any of the 3 Geeks!  
I was rereading a favorite book recently that seemed even more appropriate given the recent economic news and general upheaval in many industries, Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? I was struck by the timeless message but also by the realization that the legal industry could use a refresher (or introduction) as we attempt to reconcile the dramatic rate and pace of change we are facing.

Knowing how the legal eagles love all things unique unto their worldview, I decided to outline the core messages of the original story as they relate to our current challenges in the hope that firms can apply the concepts more expediently. For those unfamiliar with WMMC? it is a simple parable about mice (Sniff and Scurry), little people (Hem and Haw), and a maze in which they all live containing much sought after Cheese (success/fulfillment/comfort/etc.) that mysteriously keeps moving about. For our purposes, you can imagine a two associates, two ostriches, and a court house (if that helps).

Let’s hit some highlights from the story and see how they apply to the law firm:

1. Cheese (Briefs) Happen – They Keep Moving the Cheese (or Washing Your Briefs)
Change is a given in any industry, but especially so for us legal folks. Recently large-scale change has been visited upon us in terms of our clients, the economy, and our internal organizations. Some firms seem surprised – they shouldn’t be. Even if you are blessed with a steady stream of work and a stable partnership structure, change still can (and will) make its way to your door. The current changes are affecting law firm personnel across the board – from the receptionist to the most tenured partner – reminding us that we are all in this one together.

2. Anticipate Change – Get Ready for the Cheese to Move (or Your Briefs to Get Washed)
Many law firms operate day-to-day on a fairly reactive basis. We say this is the nature of our service industry – we’re here for the clients and they drive what we do. Well…yes and no. The interesting thing about clients is that they expect their professional service providers to be proactive, not reactive – and assume that firms operate as such. A proactive approach to most anything – client service, firm strategy, changing market conditions – beats a reactive approach 99% of the time.

Being proactive in our business model and operations also allows for employees to feel more in control of their environment. No one enjoys being a firefighter all the time. When firms operate reactively, employees expect change to happen “to” them, instead of being the orchestrators of change solutions.

3. Monitor Change – Smell the Cheese (or your Briefs) Often So You’ll Know When It’s Getting Old (or Needs A Wash)
How to be more proactive? Glad you asked! Proactive strategies are the result of knowing your market, your clients, and your industries inside and out. Could the firms who have been serving the financial industry all this time really have been so blindsided by the current financial crisis? Probably not. Even the financial institutions themselves predicted the bubble would burst more than a year ago! But how many of law firms adjusted their internal organizations proactively to prepare for the recession? Firms need to be better educated about – and entrenched in – the industries and markets of their clients in order to provide top quality counsel and to run their own practices most efficiently.

Internally, firms need to be more vigilant as well. There are always ways to streamline, manage costs, operate more efficiently. Does your firm have a system in place to be proactive in finding those optimal solutions on an ongoing basis – or just when the monthly revenue and expense reports begin to look grim?

4. Adapt to Change Quickly – The Quicker You Let Go of Old Cheese (or Wash Stale Briefs) the Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese (or Fresh Briefs)
This is huge. Adapting to change is key to long-term success. Ostriches need not apply. As President Eisenhower used to say, “Plans are useless, but planning is everything.” Too often firms go through an elaborate and sometimes painstaking process of planning – strategic planning, practice group planning, individual attorney business plan planning, administrative planning. You’d think with all this planning going on the adaptability rate would be high. Wrong. I like to better refer to all this planning as “Admiring The Problem”. There are a lot of plans, but not a lot of action. The point of creating a plan, as Pres. Eisenhower points out, is to go through the creative process of situation identification and problem solving. In working with attorneys and practice groups though strategic planning I often tell them I care less about what the final plan actually says than about what you went through to get there.

Creative thinking, brainstorming, and new perspectives are underutilized in law firms. Being able to adapt quickly to change requires all of these. I’ve heard it called “swarmability” – the amount of time it takes you, your practice group, your organization to recognize change opportunities, mobilize yourself(ves) in response, and then act. Even administrative departments in firms get caught in this trap – often creating excellent strategies only to offer them up to the sacrificial altar of committee review and approval process.

*Bonus Points – Noticing small changes early helps you adapt to bigger changes later on.
Briefs getting tight? Elastic starting to give around the waistline? Remain alert to small shifts in industry trends, client projections versus results, competitor firm movements, internal shifts in morale or culture, etc. It’s tempting not to go looking for trouble when the sailing is smooth, but keying in to early warning signs makes adapting to change much easier.

5. Change – Move With the Cheese (or Wash Your Own Briefs!)
Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines had the greatest strategic plan ever devised for his organization – he called it “Doing Things”. This execution step is often where firms get bogged down, side-tracked, waylaid, or otherwise derailed. Attorneys are hardwired to get things right the first time, to have the correct answer, definitively, before proposing a solution. In legal matters this is important. In business development and change management, this is suicide. Adapting to a quickly changing marketplace means acting even more quickly. Being first is good (great), being second or third is okay too. Early adapters survive and often thrive – capitalizing on new opportunities.

First is an uncomfortable position for many firms when it comes to change. Precedent is more reliable, previous results can be evaluated and then benchmarked or tossed out. Unfortunately, the changing economy will reward those firsts (and seconds and thirds) far more readily than the wait-and-see firms.

*Bonus Points – Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese. Doing what we’ve always done and expecting results – different or otherwise – is treacherous in today’s marketplace. “Because we’ve always done it that way,” isn’t going to cut it anymore. Even what works can be reviewed, revisited, tightened up and tweaked. There’s always room for improvement. If you don’t think so, attend process improvement training (Lean Six Sigma for service providers is being offered now for law firm administrators) and see if there aren’t areas you discover can be adjusted.

6. Enjoy Change! – Savor the Adventure and Enjoy the Taste of New Cheese (or the Feeling of Fresh Briefs)
The freeing part of embracing the notion of “doing things” and perhaps even being “first” is that is can be great fun. Change always gives us the chance to stretch a bit – to step outside of the comfort zone and realize new potential for ourselves and our organizations. Law firms have enjoyed a fairly tried and true business model for many years, but this doesn’t make it the best or the only model.

The recent economic shift has forced many attorneys and clients to re-examine the nature of their working relationship. This can be a frightening prospect, although in many cases a more collaborative and interesting partnership has resulted. Since change is inevitable, doesn’t it benefit us to find a more positive way to face it? Try embracing change in your firm. Put a positive spin on change announcements – look for the silver lining and encourage your employees and colleagues to view change as a creative opportunity.

7. Be Ready to Change Quickly and Enjoy It Again – They Keep Moving the Cheese (and Washing Your Briefs)
As in most important aspects of life, practice makes perfect. Becoming successful at managing and capitalizing on change is difficult, but it becomes easier with practice. Even in times of stability and status quo, stretch a little. Be vigilant about getting yourself, and your firm, out of that comfort zone and test new ground. Sea change can come when you least expect it, so you don’t want to get out of practice. (Think this sounds difficult? Try taking a new alternate route home tonight. You never know when you just might need to know one or what you might discover along the way.)

*Bonus Points – Attorneys and firms don’t have to wait for change to arrive. When you get really good at practicing, try instigating change in your industry – find blue ocean versus red.

Laura Walters is the Director of Practice Group Management at Foster Pepper PLLC in Seattle, WA. Laura has spent more than 15 years specializing in change management, business development, and competitive intelligence for both law firms and corporations.