Logic might suggest that to operate as efficiently and productively as possible on complex problems, a culture of collaboration would be a must for any legal organisation. But while the adjectives, cut-throat and competitive seem to be frequently levied at law firms, that phrase, collaborative seems to rarely get a look-in. So are lawyers a uniquely collaboration-phobic breed? Or is it that too often, the tools and processes that might enable more effective teamwork simply aren’t there? We take a closer look at the barriers to collaboration within the profession — and at how attitudes and practices are changing.
What is collaboration in the workplace?
A standard definition of collaboration is of “individuals working together to a common purpose to achieve a business benefit.”(1)
If we place this definition in the context of a legal organisation, the following points are especially relevant:
Collaboration can extend outside the firm. Collaboration could take the form of two or more individuals from the same department all contributing to the creation of a statement or court document. Other examples include a joint task completed with an external partner (a forensic accountant or costs draughtsperson, for instance). Or it could involve liaising directly and working with your client on the creation of a specific task.
Collaborating and contributing are not necessarily the same thing. Let’s say a client needs to know the tax implications of a pending deal you are negotiating, so you ask your firm’s tax department to prepare a written opinion. This is a distinct task, involving no cross-departmental interaction when it is underway. This form of multi-departmental involvement is common (especially on complex matters), but it’s not the same thing as collaboration.
What makes lawyers reluctant to collaborate?
By rights, the typical law firm ought to be a natural environment for collaboration. For example, when a client approaches you with a new instruction, the issue in question does not always fit into a simple, one-issue categorisation. ‘Messy’ client problems are all in a day’s work for many legal professionals: the type of files that touch upon multiple areas of law and require input from more than one department. One study of over 1,100 organisations found that companies that actively promoted and enabled collaborative working were five times more likely to be high performing.(2) Meanwhile, 86% of employees and managers cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.(3)
Despite this, there can often be a reluctance to embrace active collaboration within law firms. Here are some of the main reasons why…
Let’s say one of your senior partners has achieved Legal 500 Hall of Fame status. A client approaches your firm on the strength of this. There may be a fear that a collaborative method of case handling might somehow dilute this partner’s brand; that if the client were to discover that the partner was just one of many fee earners who will be dealing with the file, they may feel they are getting less than they bargained for.
Lawyers can often develop a strong sense of ownership over their individual files and client relationships, and this can sometimes lead to a reluctance to collaborate. On one level, this makes some sense from a client care perspective: it means that clients know exactly who they are dealing with, along with a clear and very simple communication channel.
But a lot of the time, when we say we prefer interacting with a single person, what we really mean is that we want a seamless experience with the company we are dealing with: something that 87% of consumers believe businesses should work harder to deliver.(4)
Collaboration doesn’t have to mean weaker client care: in fact, the opposite is true. If you can demonstrate to clients that you have the processes and culture in place to bring together skills from across the firm (and from outside it) to deal with their problem as effectively and swiftly as possible, this could be an incredibly valuable selling point for the business as a whole.
Law firm culture v commercial reality
Long hours, inter-departmental competition and a dog-eat-dog aversion to teamwork: recent reports suggest that these rather outdated attitudes are still alive and well in some law firms.(5) In the worst cases, far from encouraging collaboration to ensure group goals are met, the emphasis is more on pressuring individual lawyers to meet tough personal targets.
The rationale behind this is that competition forces the best out of fee earners – and that a more collaborative approach would somehow weaken accountability and make individual lawyers less goal-oriented.
Harvard Law School distinguished fellow, Heidi Gardner has carried out detailed research on the impact and potential of collaborative working in law firms.6 Her findings reveal that far from driving profitability, silos within and between departments are often “messy, risky and costly”. By contrast, where collaboration is embraced and successfully implemented, firms are much better able to handle complex and lucrative work, to grow client loyalty and increase their margins. Faced with this commercial reality, the continued existence of an anti-collaboration culture is hard to justify.
You have no objection in principle to collaboration – and in fact, you’d like to see more of it within your organisation. In this situation, the real barrier to collaboration may be less to do with culture and more closely linked to process limitations.
For instance, let’s say you have a detailed settlement proposal to prepare. This document would benefit from simultaneous input from multiple departments within the firm along with outside counsel – and perhaps even the client’s in-house team. The individuals involved need the ability to interact with and add to the document without fear of versioning errors. Beyond this, effective collaboration may be impossible unless everyone involved has access to the same supporting documentation, along with the ability to effectively navigate what may be vast amounts of information.
As well as encouraging collaboration, it’s also vital that firms have the technical capabilities in place to make it happen.
From increasing your capacity to handle more lucrative work through to improving lawyer wellbeing, a greater emphasis on collaboration offers multiple advantages for firms, individual employees and clients alike.
- Aiim.org. (2019). What is Collaboration?. [online] Available at: https://www.aiim.org/What-is-Collaboration#.
- Gaskell, A. (2017). New Study Finds That Collaboration Drives Workplace Performance. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2017/06/22/new-study-finds-that-collaboration-drives-workplace-performance/#47281d0e3d02
- Stein, N. (2012). Is Poor Collaboration Killing Your Company? [Infographic]. [online] Salesforce Blog. Available at: https://www.salesforce.com/blog/2012/09/nick-stein-work-post-2.html
- Bedgood, L. (2019). 25 Amazing Omnichannel Statistics Every Marketer Should Know | V12. [online] V12data.com. Available at: https://v12data.com/blog/25-amazing-omnichannel-statistics-every-marketer-should-know/
- Young-Powell, A. (2018). ‘Toxic, cut-throat’: the work culture awaiting junior lawyers. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/dec/13/toxic-vile-cut-throat-the-work-culture-awaiting-junior-lawyers
- Gardner, H. (2017). The case for smart collaboration. [online] Thomson Reuters. Available at: https://blogs.thomsonreuters.com/answerson/case-for-smart-collaboration/