Law firms are notoriously bad at execution.  They are usually pretty good at planning and plotting strategy, but when it comes to actually doing something – it’s generally bopkis.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  When law firms want to implement an idea, there is usually an elaborate rollout with a big hoopla with  lots of meetings and training sessions.  But, typically, the furor lasts for about a week and then, like a child with a new toy, the firm’s attention is diverted by some new issue or problem.  No wonder many partners refer to any attempt at change as “the flavor of the week.”

It kind of makes you wonder whether we’re approaching this in the wrong way.  Could it be that a slow and deliberate implementation of a change, with minimum rigmarole, would actually be more effective?  My wife and I walked by a new restaurant recently that we had never previously noticed, so we stopped in for an impromptu dinner.  Aside from a few kinks in the service the meal was excellent.  Given the quality of the meal, we were surprised that the place was less than half full.  When the owner came around, I put on my management consultant hat and suggested that he should better publicize the grand opening to fill the place up.  He explained that the restaurant was doing a “cold opening” which involved no publicity, no reservations, just walk-ins.  In fact, they purposefully limited the seating to only a few tables at a time.  The concept was to get the basics correct while there was little pressure and then gradually add stress so that by the time word about the restaurant got around, the staff would be fully trained and ready for a full house.

That reminded me of a firm we worked with last year that wanted to change their culture of being less than full enthusiastic about encouraging business development.  As the older partners who controlled the lions’ share of the firm’s clients started to retire, the firm needed to change younger lawyers’ attitudes about the necessity of generating business.  In fairness, most of these lawyers had been told for their entire careers that their job was to do top quality legal work and not to worry about marketing.   Indeed, the criteria for making partner and the partner compensation system was largely based on collected revenues as a working lawyer with little perceivable attention paid to business origination.

Our natural reaction as consultants was to recommend that the firm roll out a full-scale business development training program and make elaborate changes in the compensation to show the change in the firm’s attitude and stress the importance of the generation of new client work.   But the client bulked fearing that such a demonstrative change could scare associates and cause confusion and mistrust among the partners.  We tried to talk them into a more elaborate kickoff campaign but they wouldn’t budge.  The client did, however, agree to a low key weekly firm-wide email announcing new clients and major new matters for existing clients, together with recognition of the attorneys responsible for the engagements and a bit about how the client came to the firm.  And, at year end, with very little comment, associates and partners who had been responsible for significant work, received bonuses that exceed those of the hardest working lawyers.

Here’s the kicker: we are now only a year and a half into the change at this firm but the impact on culture seems far more effective than we have seen at firms that started culture changes with a big rollout.  Buoyed by the acceptance that has occurred, the firm is now starting to offer more training and marketing support which seems to be more culturally engrained that is usually the case with more traditional implementations.

Who knows.  This may just be a unique situation with one firm.  But if your lawyers are jaded with management initiatives and express ennui about strategic initiatives, consider the cold opening approach.  Not only might it be more successful, but a quiet roll out doesn’t require as much political capital from leaders… and the hollow “splat” noise won’t be quite as loud if it falls on its face.