Law firm leaders often describe running a law firm as being like “herding cats” because lawyers are so fiercely independent.  Despite being accustomed to operating in a structured legal environment, for some reason lawyers seem to take pleasure in rebelling against organizational rules and procedures.   Yet, a few firms seem to be able to enforce complex procedural norms and implement change with seemingly little difficulty.  The answer may be as simple as how the firms use social norms.

Social norms are incredibly powerful.  They can cause millions of people to sign up for Facebook, frequently say “awesome,” or buy an iPhone.  The fashion industry and most marketing campaigns are built on the influence of social norms.   Unfortunately, most of our knowledge about what causes people to wear their baseball caps backwards or give man hugs is anecdotal.  But we know enough about how behavior is influenced that we can use social norms as a valuable tool in managing lawyers, especially if change is involved.
First the basics:  social norms are all about group dynamics.  It makes no difference if the group is students at a specific university, people of a certain age or members of a law firm except that, the smaller the group, the easier it is to structure and control its norms.

The research so far seems to point to five factors that are a major influence on social norms:
1.    Visibility.  The more observable a behavior is, the more likely it is to spread within a group. This is particularly true if there is a change in attitude involved.  For example, changing the perception and awareness of breast cancer, and generating empathy and support for survivors, involves intensely private thoughts.  Pink ribbons provide a means of extending thoughts to behaviors.
2.    Leadership.  An individual within a group can adopt a behavior as an innovator without having any influence on the group.  But the leader of a group is seen as being something of a “super conformist.”  Indeed, when people outside the group or new entrants to a group want to understand the norms of the group, they will infer them from the leader’s behavior.  Therefore, the leader must “walk the talk” in order to influence the stream of a behavior within the group.
3.    Followers.  A change in social norms does not begin when an innovative person in a group changes behavior.  Technically, a trend begins when the second person adopts the behavior.  Structuring changes in social norms may require the leadership to “pre-design” followers to adopt the behavior.
4.    Emotion.  Ideas and behaviors that evoke emotion (positive or negative) spread more rapidly than those that are viewed as a passive concept.  The Wharton School at the University of Pennylvania studied what causes ideas to “go viral” by looking at 7,000 articles in the New York Times.  Overwhelmingly, the articles that got the most hits on the paper’s website were those that aroused happiness, anger or anxiety.
5.    Correct Misconceptions.  A surprising number of social norms are based on misconceptions.  Recent studies found that binge drinking among college students was not fueled because students liked to drink but rather by the perception that everyone else was drinking heavily.  After years of unsuccessful initiatives to reduce the use of alcohol, scientists found that the actual amount and frequency of alcohol consumption among college students was far less than students thought. Now schools use posters showing actual rates of drinking, smoking and eating disorders to change student behavior.

All of this yields some interesting tactics for law firms seeking to change lawyer behavior.  First, it reinforces the importance of practice groups as a vehicle for influencing social norms.  In smaller firms it could be the firm as a whole or individual offices, but typically practice groups provide the appropriate size and homogeneity to effect change.

Second, the leader plays a pivotal role in behavior change.  It starts with the selection of a leader and the fact that a respected but otherwise unremarkable service partner may better play the role of a “super conformist” than the star rainmaker who is an iconoclast.  It also points to the need for a practice group leader to be a bit Machiavellian in managing the factors that generate behavior change.

Third, firms can’t use subtle hints in managing behavior change.  There must be a visual aspect to the change.  It can be as simple as adding a metric to monthly financial reports or posting a list of lawyer performance statistics in descending order.   One firm that was having particular problems getting partners to initiate team cross-selling opportunities started every partnership lunch with a report by two partners who were involved in a cross-selling presentation during the past month.  They even reenacted the pitch to the client.  When the result was successful, wine was served with lunch and the team was toasted.  In one action, they cleared up the misconception that cross-selling doesn’t work and added some emotion to the process.

The point is, behavior change can’t be legislated or dictated.  But it can be initiated, encouraged and facilitated.  All in all, it’s probably a more important role for your practice group leaders than what most of them are doing now.