I’m going to give everyone a chance to make fun of me on this one as I try to explain how I thought of some change management issues that we fight all the time in law firms by referencing similar issues that happened in last weekend’s NASCAR race in Dover, Delaware. First of all, yes, I watch NASCAR… as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of Mississippi, but you can’t take Mississippi out of the boy. Although, that’s not where I gained my love of automobile racing, that actually happened while I was growing up in Rockford, Illinois and my Dad would take me to the local races at the ¼ mile Rockford Speedway. Alright, enough of me making excuses of why I watch NASCAR and on to my analogy.

The “Monster Mile” as they call it, is a mile long, concrete racetrack in Delaware that tends to eat up tires so much that pit stops aren’t normally based upon the need to refuel, but rather they are based on the need to get new tires. One of the benefits of the fact that the track eats up tires is that it causes the rubber from those used-up tires to stick in the grooves of the concrete. After a while, that rubber gets sticky and is kind of like contact cement. What that means to the driver of the car is that they can use that stickiness to help them maintain grip with the track, and drive a lower line around the curves. After all, the shortest way around the track is done by staying low around the corners. When the corners get “rubbered-up,” everyone tries to stay in that one lane where the rubber helps them grip around the corner. The problem comes when there is too much of a good thing, and the conditions start to change.

When you get too much rubber in the corners, because everyone is riding around in the same lane, that rubber eventually runs out of crevices to fill, and it starts building up on top of the existing rubber. Think about running one of those pink pencil erasers (coincidentally, the Brits call those “rubbers”) back and forth on your desktop. It starts out smooth, but after you go back and forth over it a few times, all of a sudden it starts to break apart and turns into little beads of eraser which cause your eraser to start bouncing up and down as it goes over these little pieces. Same thing with the rubber on the track. After a while, that sticky rubber begins to bead-up and that groove that was perfect a few minutes ago is suddenly no longer as good as it was just a few laps ago.

So, the conditions have changed… easy enough you say… just start driving in another groove and start putting the rubber down there, right?? Yes, you’d think so, but that’s not what most of the drivers did. You know what they did?? Nothing. They stayed in that same lane because it was such a good thing, that they were pretty sure that this change in conditions was simply temporary, and that their crew chief could do something in the pits that would make the car work in that lane again, and everything would go back to normal. The crew chiefs understood what was going on and were all trying to tell their drivers to start looking around the track and start trying out new lanes to see which ones would work for them now that the bottom lane wasn’t working any more. Most of the drivers, however, wouldn’t listen to that advice, and I’m guess there were three reasons for this irrational behavior.

  1. None of the other ways around the track were as fast as that bottom lane was when it was at its best. Although that benchmark was no longer obtainable, most of the drivers felt that it would eventually come back if they just kept trying it for a little bit longer.
  2. Moving to a different lane around the track would cause the drivers to get out of their comfort zones. Most of the drivers didn’t want to be taking the risk of picking the wrong lane, so they stuck with the lane they knew, although it wasn’t working very well. Think of it as the “Devil You Know” scenario.
  3. No one wanted to be the first to try something different. Everyone on that track wants to be the ‘leader’ but almost none of them want to be the first to try something new. Instead, they’ll call up to their spotters (the guys that sit way up on the racetrack stands and guide them around the track through radio communications), and they start asking them to see what everyone else is doing, and if anyone else is trying something new that is working. 

All three of these situations run parallel to situations that many of us face when the conditions within our law firms start to change. And, many of the reactions that the drivers had – wanting things to go back to the way it was; not wanting to try something different because it moved them outside of their comfort zone; and, waiting for someone else to do something, and then copying that in hopes that it will also work for them – the ‘drivers’ of the firm also have.

Just think of some of the changes that are happening in the legal industry that effect law firms, and think of how much of how firms react to them mirror the actions taken by the NASCAR drivers:

  1. Billable hours – clients beginning to question this tradition and asking firms to start looking at alternative methods.
  2. Westlaw/Lexis charging back to the client – we all know that this process is going to eventually go away, but it seems that many firms are instead trying to find a way to make it work again. It was such a good thing when it worked, surely it will work again, right??
  3. Being the first to try something new – One of the most common things that you’ll hear if you suggest trying out something new to law firm leaders is “Who else has already tried this? How did it work for them?” We live in a world where one firm will chase the tail of another firm all day long, but almost none of the firms are wanting to be the first dog in line.

Many of the leaders of law firms want the conditions to go back to what they used to be. For, us that means a pre-2008 world. Problem is, that’s not very likely to happen. Many of us know that this type of reaction is irrational, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing it so. Real leaders understand that conditions change, and new “lanes” need to be tried to see what works the best under these new conditions. Those that understand how to adapt to changing conditions, and work with all of their resources to find the best way around the track will end up as the leaders and will find that everyone else will be playing catch-up trying to figure out how you developed your winning strategy.