Teamwork is not a new concept within law firms. Client teams, practice groups, and committees have reigned supreme for decades, but fully realized organizational collaboration is not always part of the traditional law firm environment. Practice groups may view one another as competitors rather than colleagues; business functions such as marketing and accounting may rarely work together; communication may only come from the top down. Such siloed, hierarchical cultural norms have become dated and ineffective as businesses and law firms have grown more diverse, both demographically and geographically. Implementing and embracing a fully collaborative law firm culture can improve both efficiency and employee satisfaction for lawyers and staff.
A 2014 white paper from the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flager Business School identified seven benefits of organization-wide collaboration:
- Fully engaged workers who are eager to take on new projects and challenges and who embrace change.
- Improved organizational flexibility and agility.
- Improved employee health, wellness, and performance.
- Extremely high retention rates.
- A competitive advantage when attracting top talent.
- The ability to develop and bring products faster to the market.
- Increased top-line and bottom-line.
In addition, research by Heidi Garner and the Harvard Law Center on the Legal Profession found that collaboration at the partner level drives rainmaking, reputation, rates, and client retention.
A 2017 article from Michigan State University defined collaborative leadership as “a shared process in which people pool their abilities and resources to address mutual issues and attain outcomes they could not achieve individually.” It is “found in the relationships among a group of people who are united in trust, identity, and commitment.” Garner notes that collaboration in law firms must move beyond cross-selling in order for firms to be competitive in today's complex business and political environment; effective collaboration, she writes, “…involves specialists working together substantively to deliver a project rather than experts working separately in disciplinary silos.”
It can be challenging to develop this kind of unity and trust, particularly in a high-stakes, competitive environment like a law firm. For that reason, strong collaborative leadership is crucial for law firms to establish and maintain an organization-wide collaborative culture. A 2013 article from the Harvard Business Review identified four skills that can be developed to foster collaborative leadership: playing the role of connector, attracting diverse talent, modeling collaboration at the top, and showing a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate. Developing and encouraging these skills at all levels of the firm, for lawyers and staff alike, can drive cultural change towards collaboration in all areas.
Playing the role of connector: A collaborative leader brings people, resources, and ideas together across departments, offices, and levels of power to efficiently solve problems. Being a connector is more than just networking; it is fostering an environment of trust in which the people you have connected can have open dialogue regardless of age, gender, or professional experience.
Attracting diverse talent: A collaborative leader brings diverse talent into the organization and continues to support that diversity. Maintaining diversity of experiences and opinions, rather than applying a “this is how we do things here” mentality to new employees, can create an open environment to explore new ideas and opinions, leading to innovative solutions to complex problems.
Modeling collaboration at the top: A collaborative leader works together with his or her peers across departments, not just with his or her subordinates. A director that collaborates with partners or directors of other departments can break down siloes at the top of the organization and prevent them from developing at lower levels of the organization. This “leading from the front” mentality demonstrates that the collaborative spirit is more than just an idea, but an active practice in the firm.
Showing a strong hand to keep teams from getting mired in debate: Too many cooks in the law firm kitchen can sour any initiative through endless spirals of meetings or political and passive-aggressive confrontations. A collaborative leader maintains an environment that is both open and controlled to keep projects on time and within scope.
Changing organizational culture is always a challenge. By modeling these behaviors, law firm leaders can empower lawyers and staff alike to collaborate and be competitive in the ever-evolving legal landscape.
By Ashley Hollingsworth, Marketing Communications Specialist at Miller & Chevalier Chartered