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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    December 01, 2016

    On Balance
    Innovation and the Law: How Change Impacts Lawyers

    If you’re one of the many lawyers struggling to successfully cope with the rapid and widespread evolution of the profession, here are some tips for identifying change, lessening its negative effects, and trying new approaches.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    Fork in the road leads to sunny or stormy

    “The earlier changes are discerned, the earlier the opportunities they create can be converted into innovations.” – Peter F. Drucker

    The legal profession is changing. When I practiced law, few lawyers knew that major change was on the horizon. Business was booming, associate salaries made insane jumps year after year, law schools graduated thousands of new lawyers, and the profession was running like it had been for decades. Change was slow and carefully analyzed through the lenses of skeptical lawyers who quickly questioned new policies and procedures, such as the following:

    • Using flextime and alternative schedules as tools to build flexibility and autonomy for lawyers and staff;

    • Experimenting with fee structures other than the billable hour; and

    • Incorporating (and embracing) new technology.

    Fast forward seven years, and the legal profession is in the midst of rapid change. A variety of new businesses have been created to address and “remedy the market’s failure to deliver business organizations responsive to the complaints of either lawyers or of clients.”1 Clients are demanding alternative billing arrangements, and a hot topic at many legal conferences is artificial intelligence – development of computer systems that can perform tasks that would normally require human intelligence.

    New Legal Education and Law Practice Models

    Some educators and lawyers are responding to the rapid change. Law schools including Harvard, Suffolk, and Vanderbilt have created courses in innovation, tasking law student teams to create new offerings in the areas of legal education, legal practice, and legal technology. Schools are also adding to their curricula new types of seminars and workshops focused on helping future lawyers build sustainable practices and lives.

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention

    Talk has begun about whether law school curricula in general meet the demands of law firm employers and their constituent clients, who are becoming increasingly unwilling to foot the bill to train new associates on matters. The legal community at large has questioned whether the path to a law degree must be overhauled, perhaps along the lines of medical school education, for which additional years are added to allow for a more formal internship or residency period.

    New models of legal practice have been created that offer a new value proposition for both lawyers and clients.2

    Secondment Firms. These firms place lawyers in house on a temporary or part-time basis. Lawyers choose to work either a full-time flex schedule (a flexible schedule structured around family responsibilities or other interests) or a part-time schedule. Lawyers are paid only for the hours they work.

    Law and Business Advice Companies. These are organizations that combine legal advice with general business advice of the kind often provided by management consulting firms.

    Law Firm Accordion Companies. These companies create networks of lawyers who are available to meet law firms’ short-term staffing needs. Lawyers are paid only for the hours they work.

    Virtual Law Firms. There is a wide variety in the type of structure of these organizations, but lawyers working for virtual law firms often work out of their own homes and get paid only for the time they work.

    What we’re starting to see in the legal profession is “disruptive innovation,”3 which occurs “when a competitor enters a marketplace with a product or service most initially see as inferior – until successive improvements displace established products or even industries.”4

    Resilient organizations are flexible and are willing to try new approaches rather than relying on standard operating procedure.

    Change Has Consequences

    Change is not going away in the legal profession, and many experts predict that the legal profession is going to look very different in as little as 10 years. Busy professionals don’t always handle change well, and lawyers are no exception.

    Research shows that change, and the stress that comes with it, can result in the following psychological and behavioral outcomes:5 1) cognitive narrowing (your attention zeroes in on just the possible sources of stress, potentially leading to missing other details that you might normally notice); 2) constriction (tightening) of control (you are able to process less information at peak capacity); and 3) conservation of resources (you seek to protect your resources).

    The result is a rigid, inflexible response to stress, change, and adversity, which may lead to:

    • Increased errors (especially “errors of omission”) and missing information or deadlines;

    • A “protect my turf” mentality, that is, being less of a team player and more uncooperative;

    • More stress;

    • A decline in work quality;

    • Incivility and less collegiality;

    • Survival-based emotions and reactions such as impatience, defensiveness, and hyper-criticality;

    • Disconnecting from others and increased self-focus; and

    • More passivity and less initiative taking.

    The Impact of Resilience

    If change is here to stay, what can law firms do to limit its negative effects on lawyers and staff? Resilience, a person’s or organization’s capacity for stress-related growth, shows promise. Resilient organizations look and operate differently than less resilient firms in four key ways:6

    • They develop excess capacity, which allows them to survive if one area of the organization fails.

    • They are robust in that they promote the psychological health of their employees.

    • They are flexible and are willing to try new approaches rather than relying on standard operating procedure.

    • They support a culture of respect and trust.

    For individuals, a resilience practice builds several capacities.7

    One is the ability to tolerate change, stress, uncertainty, and other types of adversity more effectively. You develop healthier coping strategies and are therefore more likely to mitigate the impact of stress and adversity.

    Another capacity is increased self-efficacy; you have the belief that you can produce results in your life and feel effective. You have a sense of agency, are able to develop more of a “growth mindset,” and believe that problems can be solved as a result of your own efforts. This mindset helps to buffer against developing a “giving up” mentality and learned helplessness.

    In addition, you are more motivated to achieve in many different areas of life and are flexible in your ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

    Finally, you more easily promote the development and maintenance of high-quality relationships and you draw upon these connections when you need help coping with stress.


    Innovation, failure, and change are inextricably linked. The strategies outlined above can help you and your coworkers stay resilient through them all. As 2016 draws to a close, think about the following questions:

    What does my firm or organization need to do to remain competitive?

    Where are my opportunities to innovate?

    What is the firm or organization doing to make sure lawyers and staff have the tools they need to be their most effective and have the most impact in the midst of change?


    1 Joan Williams, Aaron Platt & Jessica Lee, Disruptive Innovation: New Models of Legal Practice. Work Life Law, UC Hastings College of Law (2015).

    2 Id. at 2.  All of these new models of legal practice are more fully described in the white paper.

    3 This term was coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen.

    4 Williams, Platt & Lee, supra note 1, at 5. 

    5 Barry M. Staw, Lance E. Sandelands & Jane E. Dutton, Threat-Rigidity Effects in Organizational Behavior: A Multi-Level Analysis, 26(4) Admin. Sci. Q., 501-24 (1981).

    6 Janet Denhardt & Robert Denhardt, “Building Organizational Resilience and Adaptive Management,” in Handbook of Adult Resilience 333-49 (John W. Reich, Alex J. Zautra & John Stuart Hall eds.) (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2010).

    7 Andrew E. Skodol, “The Resilient Personality,” in Handbook of Adult Resilience, supra note 6, at 112-25.

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