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By Roy Strom | November 08, 2018 at 12:20 PM

Changing lawyers’ behavior, it turns out, can be more science than art.

If you build it, they won’t necessarily use it.

That might be a mantra for innovation managers within Big Law who struggle to persuade lawyers to adopt new efficiency-focused tools.

“Innovative isn’t innovative if no one is using it,” said William Painter, chief innovation officer at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. “And that’s the challenge: changing attorney behavior.”

To do that, Painter has turned to a field he said he didn’t even know existed: Behavioral science. More specifically, he has implemented nudges within Baker Donelson’s technology set that are designed to take advantage of insights from B.J. Fogg, a behavioral scientist who founded the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University.

Fogg has developed a behavior model that says change happens when there is a confluence of three factors: motivation, ability and a prompt. The challenge facing Painter and other innovation managers at law firms is to find lawyers who want to do things differently, ensure they have the ability to do it, and then supply the right prompt to change.

But what does that mean for a law firm?

Painter, based in the firm’s Jackson, Mississippi, office, has gone to great lengths to adapt Fogg’s behavior model to lawyers.

Fogg, for instance, asserts that there are three aspects to motivation: sensation (described as pleasure or pain), anticipation (hope and fear) and belonging (rejection or acceptance). Adapting the model for the business of law, Painter sees lawyers as motivated by the pleasure or pain of making more money, the hope and fear of winning or losing clients, and the desire to be accepted and appreciated by the firm’s leadership.

Unfortunately for law firm leaders interested in driving change, Painter has concluded that not much can be done by a law firm to affect a lawyer’s motivation. Attempting to motivate based on adjusting a compensation system, he said, is “the third rail” of law firm management.

“The fact of the matter is there is very little you can do in a law firm to drive motivation,” Painter said Wednesday at a conference on legal innovation in Boston. “What we can address is ability. How do we make it easier to do?”
In Painter’s personal example at Baker Donelson, he said the behavior change he is most interested in driving is implementing smart budgets on more legal matters.
“If you get good at budgets, and if you have the data to get empirical about it, then it’s the key to everything,” he said.

Ability to change behavior, he said, is often measured in two ways: time or money. What lawyers lack is the time to do new things, like learning to budget matters or implementing budgeting tools. So Painter said the firm has spent money to make budgeting a seamless part of the lawyers’ work.

That meant hiring a team of a dozen legal project managers to help the firm’s lawyers budget matters. The firm also implemented brief, 15-minute training segments, and experimented with turning the training into a game setting.

Then there’s the matter delivering a prompt. On the front end of client matters, Painter has sprinkled prompts within Baker Donelson’s technology system, called BakerManage, which lawyers use to create engagement letters. The process now asks if the lawyer would like to provide a scope statement. The system reminds them that scope statements are particularly important for alternative billing arrangements. The system will also ask if they would like to use BakerManage’s project management tools.

“This will trigger language in the engagement letter,” Painter said. “And by the way, once you commit in the engagement letter to do it, you better do it.”

Painter said the firm currently has more than 1,200 matters being managed on budgets through its BakerManage system.

The firm has come up with other prompts, too. Painter said it developed a “strike team” that intercedes when partners are working on client matters that have low profitability. The team will offer ways to redesign legal work processes for lower cost in an effort to make the client relationship more profitable.

“The strike team says, ‘You are going to improve, or you and the client are gone,’” Painter said. “And we see improvements in profitability or write-downs, which are a huge issue. That’s a prompt that’s more like a mandate. But that’s OK. I’ll go with that.”