When law firms go about attempting the implementation of strategies that involve some aspect of change for the firm, there is frequently a lot of talk about “burning platforms.”  The concept is that people, particularly lawyers, are resistant to change.  Therefore, even the most logical and rational justifications of change don’t seem to work unless there is some degree of urgency – a burning platform.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many law firm Managing Partners and COO’s see the current economic crisis as an ideal motivation to change partners’ performance, implement strategic initiatives, change the firm’s culture and generally solve all of the problems of the firm.  It should be equally unsurprising that many firms are disappointed in the lack of success they are having in using the recession as a burning platform even though it is roundly judged to be the most severe economic conditions since the 1930’s.

The problem is that each person’s definition of what constitutes a burning platform for them is different.  Consider smoking.  Even the three-pack a day smoker knows that smoking is bad for his or her health.   Anti-smoking advocates have supported efforts to raise the cost of cigarettes through high taxes, make it illegal to smoke in most public places and make it awkward and uncomfortable to smoke where it is permitted.  Yet, despite the best efforts of smoking opponents, roughly one out of every four Americans continue to smoke and 800,000 new smokers (mostly children) start smoking annually. I’m sure there are many people who quit smoking because they are convinced by the public health information, the cost or the inconvenience.  But most seem to find the motivation to quit after they have a heart attack, a relative dies of cancer or the birth of their first child — the urgency of a burning platform.

The questions before the house, then, are how does one elevate the current economic downturn into a burning platform and successfully use it to motivate change?  Consider the following five truisms about using burning platforms.

1. The partners must accept the issue as being legitimate.  Lawyers are professional skeptics.  They get paid for finding faults in other people’s arguments and they bring that skill to partnership matters.  This is precisely the problem Al Gore and environmentalists are having in drawing attention to global warming — before they can worry about a burning platform, there is the problem that a significant number of people whose support is necessary to take action don’t quite believe the problem exists.  In law firms we often find this problem in dealing with practice areas that are under-profitable or inconsistent with the firm’s strategic direction.  The proponents of the practice simply don’t accept the justifications for action presented as being valid.

The biggest problem with legitimacy issues is that the partners who accept the truth of an issue have difficulty accepting the fact that someone else might not agree with their position.  The assumption is that opponents are just being stubborn or have a vested interest that influences their opinion.  While both of these things may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that, before you can sell people a better mousetrap, you have to convince them that they have mice.

In many law firms, precedent seems to lend credibility to an argument.  A managing partner of a 300 lawyer Midwestern firm set the strategic objective of shedding an under-profitable medical malpractice defense practice.  He used a comparison of the profitability of similar firms that performed med-mal work with those that did not.   By documenting his case with precedent rather than supposition, he was able to gain a reasonable level of acceptance among his partners.

2. The partners must attach an urgency to the action.  Urgency is at the heart of a burning platform yet many firms attempting to drive change fail to make the argument that time is of the essence.  The recent stimulus package passed by Congress is a perfect example.  Polls show virtually unanimous acceptance of the legitimacy of the problem — people understand and accept that the U.S. is in a deep recession and support government involvement.  Yet, the polls also show a much more mixed willingness to support a stimulus program without further study.  The position of many Americans was, “What’s the rush? Let’s take our time and do it right.” In selling the package, the proponents failed to convince some people that there would be a negative result if action was not taken today instead of a month from now.

For many law firms, this problem is the personification of their difficulties in dealing with under-productive partners.  People in general, but lawyers specifically (and especially litigators), have learned that many problems resolve themselves over time and it is usually wise to adopt a “wait and see” attitude.

The whole concept of a burning platform is the message that, “If we don’t take action right now, we will be consumed by the fire.”  The best support of this message is to demonstrate the consequences of not taking immediate action.  A client firm recently did a large lay-off of associates and staff members to reduce costs and “right size” staffing to the level of work available.  This was the first layoff in the firm’s history and was considered incredibly controversial among the partners.  The Management Committee gained consensus by showing a timeline of the notice and severance time required before any savings would actually occur and impact on profits for each week’s deferral of a decision.

3. The change must be viewed by the partners as being an appropriate response to the problem.  As the saying goes, “When you’re a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  Often leaders attempt to build a burning platform to support their own objectives which may or may not be responsive to the problem at hand.  For example, a client has undergone a 25 percent dip in billable hours for the last couple of months due to a fall off of their bank lending practice.  The plan of action announced by the managing partner was to jettison the firm’s insurance defense practice.  Getting rid of the insurance defense practice (which represented about 20 percent of the firm’s revenue) had been on the agenda for years.   The partners accepted the fact that the firm needed to urgently stop the bleeding but rejected the proposal as being unresponsive to the problem.  As one of the firm’s partners put it, it made as much sense as having a child to save a marriage.

Old responses ring false when they are repeated in the context of urgency, yet we frequently see law firm leaders try to use new crises to justify old agendas.  Law firm managers need to recognize that the action and the urgency need to make sense independently.

The bottom line is that the recession is a natural burning platform that is uniformly acknowledged as being an urgent problem to which all businesses must respond.  The key for law firm managers is to not squander the opportunity to make meaningful strategic changes in their firm and its operations by failing to provide decisive leadership in addressing immediate problems.