Overcoming resistance to change: Lessons from the 'magic circle'

When law firms first tried to introduce a new role between partner and associate, counsel, nobody was happy.

by Adam Gale

Elite law firms have long operated an up-or-out model: to reach much-coveted partner status, associates must work very long hours in their twenties and thirties. However, by the early 2000s, anonymous staff surveys revealed this was causing increasing dissatisfaction over work-life balance.

A study in Administrative Science Quarterly followed five elite London law firms between 2007 and 2018 as they attempted an organisational change to combat this problem and improve talent retention. Managing partners introduced a new role, counsel, as a more junior alternative to partner that still gave associates something to aim for, but at a lower cost to their family life. To their surprise, they found this elicited widespread and vocal opposition.

“First, associates perceived the counsel role as being off the successful path to partnership, and second, they associated it with making time for family.... which was not legitimate within a legal career. To them, professional status and family status were irreconcilable,” write the study’s authors, led by Namrata Malhotra, associate professor of strategy and organisation at Imperial College Business School.

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