Heath is a senior manager in EY's Legal Function Consulting and Global Innovation teams. He's a former opera singer turned operations engineer, change leader, and technologist. He has over 15 years of experience driving organizational design, knowledge management, and technology innovation initiatives. He has extensive experience in strategic planning, change management, and Implementations, artificial intelligence and leadership development. He has been recognized as a leading technology advocacy professional by the International Legal Technology Association, and published on JD Supra regarding performance sustainment during stressful times.
He has led multi-faceted organizational design efforts for prominent social media and technology companies. He transformed a prominent AMLaw 100 firm’s KM team to become a strategic change management unit. This team provided for the redesign of the staffing and development programs for the firm’s largest business unit, strategic planning for the majority of its administrative departments, operations advisory and planning for firm clients. This was accomplished with a national team of 20, including attorneys, business analysts, technologists, and research specialists.
What does your change management and organizational design methodology for law firms and corporate legal departments entail, and how do you ensure it effectively addresses the unique needs and challenges of these organizations?
The framework I use is a mashup of models developed by Jay Galbraith and Don Hambrick. I took traditional business school models and co-opted my time at my last law firm as a pseudo post-grad program to develop my version of change and org design for lawyers. It is founded on the golden rule of change: involve the people affected by change, in the design of what it will be. This golden rule is tightly interlinked with a universal truth of lawyers that Jordan Furlong taught me: “Lawyers are not risk averse. They are embarrassment averse.” When you’re changing how people work and how their clients see them, this matters a lot.
Given the typical lawyer’s traits of personal brand protection, critical thinking, and tearing apart anything presented to see what truth remains standing, you have to create a pretty comprehensive and battle-ready vision of the future to get them to be willing to go on a journey of change with you.
My model follows three steps:
1. Understand the present
a. What are our goals?
b. Where are we now?
c. What gets in the way of achieving our goals, pain points, and obstacles?
2. Imagine the future
a. Where do we want to be?
b. What solves our problems?
3. Plan for change
a. How do we get there? What needs to change?
b. When will it happen (priorities)?
These steps are mapped to the 6 elements of organizational design: Strategy, structure, technology/processes/information sharing, reward structures, training/hiring, and culture. In step one, we map our current universe and discuss what gets in the way of achieving our goals. We make sure we understand the root causes of our problems. Often we can connect these pain points and obstacles directly to elements of to what the current state looks like today (eg. Disconnected systems creating knowledge management problems, or reward structures that celebrate pushing boulders up a hill, rather than being efficient).
We then design what solves these challenges and envision what our future will be. By remaining foundational in what solves the problems of your org, we remain practical and grounded in what we have to actually do to have a chance to achieve a meaningfully improved future. All of this is done with a leadership team, in a room together. We use this framework to help leaders see each other, to see what actually gets in the way. In this way, the model provides the bones of our conversation, but we find the solution together.
The homework to make this successful in firms or legal departments is to talk to these leaders and the people that do the work to understand what makes their business work and what their limiting factors are. In firms, you have the client mix and revenue mix, the billable hour, and the partnership model. In corporate legal departments, you have the infrastructure needs of a law firm, but a fixed budget for a department that does not generate revenue. This can create limited influence connectivity to the broader business.
There are limiting factors facing most teams when designing a new path forward, which makes the power of a team all the more important. You have to build your community of the willing and create a systematic plan for change that starts with something simple but repeatable. This foundation is then used to successively build more. My experiences in this arena have led me to believe that fear of change is the absence of leadership, and resistance to change is the absence of involving people in the plan.
You are outspoken on mental health within the legal industry. Why have you advocated so strongly for better resources and support in this area? How have you overcome any mental health challenges of your own?
I suffer from debilitating anxiety. It was exciting growing up. Everyone has their story. I told myself that I would be someone to be there for someone else. So they didn’t have to feel alone. It’s funny how we find each other in professional life. Just this weird knowing connection between people who have been through some stuff and some things.
I find it particularly interesting in the world of law. In law, any flaw is a weakness. In reality, vulnerability is courage. So I try to have the courage to be exactly who I am. I also work to create space for others to see that it’s ok to have that courage too. It’s ok not to know everything, it’s ok to need help, it’s ok to need each other.
There is a lot of talk about mental health issues in law, mostly for lawyers. It’s understandable, the pressure of the job, the long hours, being “led” by people who got their positions by building revenue and not people/teams, sleep deprivation, perfection chasing, the endless pursuit of reaching the next door to finally be good enough, to have made it. And at the end of the day, all these lawyers have to fall back on are the hundreds of thousands of dollars they make a year in comp and bonuses, and this pesky incredibly valuable education that can take them anywhere!
This environment doesn’t just affect the lawyers though, but everyone else around them as well. In a world where you are who you surround yourself with, lowly non-lawyers experience this too. Just for half the pay, and with half the opportunities and resources to explore other paths professionally. Those leaders in law firms also tend to share the love with the folks that don’t generate revenue too. With this said, no person’s pain or trauma is greater than anyone else’s – it’s all relative. When we start to measure our pain instead of understanding each other’s pain, I think we all lose.
With that said, I view circumstance as I view leadership, it is a choice. You get to choose what you will do with it. And, I’ll be damned if I don’t turn something bad into something that makes me stronger, something that fuels me to make something great. So, in a life of choices, I chose to look for the good, to look for the opportunity in circumstance. It’s why I study change.
I believe in the power of breathing and meditation. I do it before I go in the room for the big stuff. I still get scared. I just do it scared. I was scared answering this question.
In designing new business models for law firms, and tech strategies for both firms and corporate legal departments, what are common major challenges you faced and how do you overcome them?
The biggest challenges to navigate are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and keeping lawyer brains solution-oriented and imaginatively flexible. The following sentiments often creep in. If I do this, what will other people think? Does this fit in the exact box that I’ve understood my work/world to be in? What if my clients or my colleagues make fun of me for trying? The 80/20 rule doesn’t work for lawyers, let’s go for 125% so we can survive the pepper mill when we try to pitch this in front of the others as something we need to do!
So, to navigate this landscape, I think it’s important to set ground rules for how we create things together, to create psychological safety. First, we’re here to build not tear down, and anyone can spot a problem. When you spot one, bring it up – it just must be accompanied by some start of what a solution could be. Second rule, celebrate each other’s ideas. Celebrate contribution. Third rule, stay outcome focused. We are designing a strategy or a new thing that someone will buy. If we provide this input, what outputs will it create? We’re not here to solve edge cases, we’re solving for the median in the curve. Fourth rule, change is an endurance sport. Discover the things that give you and your team energy. Remind each other of them.
Look for the good you already have in your organization, and why you already have building blocks to be successful. Shrink the change, stack the things that will help you win, be sober and systematic about the things you’ll have to build for and then solve. In either of these scenarios, creating a new product, creating a new tech strategy, you’re inherently changing how people work, and how people show their value. Pay attention to the incentives and reward structures you can control.
How does partnering with others help you to redesign new products and services and innovate?
Gathering diverse opinions helps you understand the universe of challenges you need to address for people to hear your message, to get crystal about what success looks like, and the problems we will solve for one another. This is not my win or your win. When we all win – we win.
To young lawyers wanting to innovate, how would you advise them?
You are taught to find/challenge assumptions. Use that. Try using the 5 why’s in building your career path, solving problems in your firms/companies, and in building things for your clients.
Take this problem: the corporate associate team can’t possibly bear another transaction this month. Why? This has been our busiest quarter of the year. Why? We thought business was slowing given economic conditions, so we reduced staff. Why? We had to reduce our groups in order to maintain the profitability of our business and to pay our partners. Why? We had a lot of activity in the lateral market and made very large offers to new partners in the hopes of gaining market share. Why? It’s a highly competitive fixed-pie market, so the only way to grow our business is to grow our partnership laterally.
Ok, it seems the root of your seasonality problem in associate staffing could be connected to your lateral hiring strategy. Though it can seem like a magic wand to import this new partner and new book of business, your existing business must be sustained and staffed appropriately. So, before you extend your financial commitment for the promise of additional work, ensure that you understand the seasonality of your existing work such that you can better plan for staffing needs for your existing business and changing economic conditions. Otherwise, you run the risk of solving the same problem by a different name year after year, and ultimately put yourselves in the business of finding more partners, instead of serving your clients and those that serve them.
I would encourage young lawyers to try this when they are presented with a problem. This can help mitigate reactionary governing. The last thing I’d say is to practice being uncomfortable. Leadership in your own life and career is found in the choices you make in the process of becoming comfortable being uncomfortable.
Every kid needs a hero; and if you’re lucky, really lucky, you get to be related to him. My Grandpa was many things, but one of his best talents was telling a story. He told many, some over and over again. If you listened though, he was telling you more. He was telling you how to be a great man, how to live your life, how to care for others, how to fight for the right thing, and those who cannot fight for themselves. He taught me that love and life are worth fighting for, to fight for something bigger than yourself. He taught me that leadership is found in actions, showing how you fight for them, when it’s hard to, when it’s easier to walk away. He taught me that when you live this way, they will fight alongside you, just as you fight for them. He taught me that no one in this life is going to give you anything, that it’s your job to inspire them to want to be a part of your story. Above all, he showed me a door, and a path that leads to it. No matter the circumstance though, it is your job to walk that path, reach the door, figure out how it opens, and walk right through. All that he asked was that I show someone else who needs to see that they too have it, that we all have it, just walk, and you will see. Never give in, never give up. Fight.
The above was written for my Grandfather’s memorial service. The picture is of me singing to him on my wedding day.