While lawyers are driven and industrious people, it’s sometimes to a fault. Too much autonomy can end up hurting a law firm’s productivity and effectiveness by encouraging competition and spite instead.
“Lawyers tend to be inherently self-reliant and autonomous,” says Grant Walsh, Founder and Managing Partner at Culhane Meadows. “Plus, most law firms tend to reward individuals with financial recognition based on personal billable hours rather than looking at the benefits of team efforts. That’s why there are so many stories about lawyers clawing over each other’s backs in BigLaw to gain origination credit for new business development.”
The kind of people who get into law are typically Type A individuals, which means they’re proactive, organized and ambitious. “[They were] rewarded for their individual achievements, many of which were on a bell curve and there was only so much room at the top of the curve,” says Sheila Murphy, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Focus Forward Consulting.
This idea of lawyers vying for the top spot starts in law school, which Lin McCraw, Owner of McCraw Law Group, says is “a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum-gain approach that requires a winner and a loser individually. With a good team, the whole team wins. At law school, we are not taught to foster information sharing or teamwork, so it is little wonder that many brilliant lawyers are so poor at it when it is required when actually practicing law.”
Instead of being a good team player, McCraw notes that lawyers feel the need to be the person “who just puts in more time, more thought [and] more whatever to become the hero and save the client. It is a deceptive and futile pursuit.”
Even though lawyers may not be used to it or ready for a change, they need to learn how to work on a team in order for their law firms to thrive. Here are a few reasons why.
IT’S BETTER FOR CLIENTS
Teamwork is critical because one lawyer cannot service the firm’s clients 24/7. However, most clients expect that, according to Susan Wissink, Director at Fennemore Craig. “Having a team allows the client to have multiple contacts and also allows the attorneys to discuss strategies for the client’s success,” she says.
Without teamwork, one attorney “owns” a relationship with a client, according to Debra Pickett, Founder and Principal Consultant at Page2 Communications. That means if that attorney retires or leaves the firm, the client won’t have a comfort level or familiarity with anyone else, and they may sign with another law firm.
“If the client has been served by a team, though, they have multiple touch points with multiple team members and the relationship can be preserved even when the originating partner retires or leaves,” she says.
Without teamwork, one attorney “owns” a relationship with a client. ... That means if that attorney retires or leaves the firm, the client won’t have a comfort level or familiarity with anyone else, and they may sign with another law firm.
And it reduces risk. When only one attorney is assigned to a case, what happens if they mess up? Who will be there to catch their mistakes if they’re working independently? To solve this problem, law firms can use the power of teamwork to help mitigate risk, just by having a second or third set of eyes reviewing a work product or identifying any issues with an attorney that wouldn’t be evident in a silo situation, according to Wissink.
Plus, it’s appealing to clients. When a potential client is looking into a law firm, they may want to find a team of lawyers with different areas of expertise and knowledge of the law, unlike a single attorney, who may only have a firm grasp on a certain aspect of the law, says Devin Miller, patent and trademark lawyer and the Founder, CEO and Managing Partner of Miller IP Law. “By having attorneys work as a team, the law firm has a great knowledge base to pull from for a given case and will produce a great outcome.”
IT HELPS WITH RECRUITING AND RETENTION
A lack of internal harmony can lead to negative external perceptions of the law firm, which isn’t good for business. However, working together can foster trust and loyalty, which would lead to a positive perception of the firm.
“By emphasizing the collaborative, team-oriented nature of firm to clients, you can build increased loyalty and trust, which leads to more referrals and provides better work products as a result,” says Shiyang Gong, a Partner at DeHeng Law Offices and CEO of legal software company AiLaw.
A culture that emphasizes teamwork will also experience more success when it comes to retention and recruiting, says Wissink, since people will actually want to work at the firm. “An attorney who is part of a team is less likely to jump ship than an attorney operating in a silo. Similarly, lateral recruits are often drawn to firms with a reputation of working together to provide legal services.”
IT’S CRUCIAL FOR SUCCESSION PLANNING
Succession planning ensures that a law firm will thrive even after attorneys and partners leave. Putting teamwork on a pedestal is critical for succession planning, according to Sam Safi, Founder of Safi Law Group.
“A lawyer typically works on several client matters at a time,” he said. “As a result, many people’s personal and business interests are in the hands of the lawyer. If the lawyer becomes ill, dies or retires, those clients’ interests can be best protected if other members of the team also had some knowledge of the client’s matter. That would allow for a smooth transition. As a result, teamwork is essential for succession planning.”
CHANGING THE AUTONOMOUS CULTURE IN YOUR FIRM
The benefits of teamwork seem to be endless, but how exactly can you break down autonomy in your law firm? These are some ways you can start to encourage your attorneys and staff to work together.
1. Change how you compensate. If you’re only doing billable hours at your firm, you may want to reconsider that model in order to promote teamwork.
“It is easier to encourage teamwork for firms that have moved to flat fees or value billing but much more challenging for firms that are focused on the billable hour,” says Debbie Foster, Partner at Affinity Consulting Group, an ALA VIP business partner.
According to Walsh, the point-based compensation system that most law firms use is fundamentally flawed, and it works directly against team-based client services. Also, he says it’s a major contributing factor to the well-documented gender pay gap among lawyers.
These subjective compensation systems — which involve a closed-door compensation committee reviewing attorneys — convince attorneys to be in a survival mindset of scarcity, as opposed to one of abundance, adds Walsh. Since attorneys are only looking out for themselves, because they have to, “the natural result is heightened internal conflict and office politics about client originations, not to mention that lawyers may carelessly stretch their abilities rather than referring work to a more qualified colleague,” he says.
[Teamwork] reduces risk. When only one attorney is assigned to a case, what happens if they mess up? Who will be there to catch their mistakes if they’re working independently?
At his law firm, Walsh has a transparent and objective formula-based compensation system, which puts every lawyer on a level playing field. When this type of system is properly managed, it can incentivize cross-selling, make men and women more equal, and incentivize originating and other partners to work together on client matters.
“In a formula-based system, partners know exactly how much they will earn from other partners working on their client matters,” says Walsh. “This is very different from conventional compensation models, where partners are incentivized to make their own practices look bigger by holding all engagements close to their vests.”
2. Reward teamwork. If you’re going to instruct your team to work together, then you have to recognize when they’re doing a great job. That way, they’ll be encouraged to keep it up.
“Positive and negative feedback related to teamwork needs to be given promptly,” says Murphy. “The firm may also want to consider recognition for great teamwork. Perhaps an associate who exhibits it has a mentoring lunch with the managing partner.”
3. Invest in the right technology. In today’s modern world, law firms need the technology to work on teams, especially if anyone is working remotely or out of the office. Safi says you could use technology like encrypted email as well as cloud storage to share information, work as a group and ensure that ethical duties are not breached.
“In addition, law firms can utilize certain project management software to work on large and complex cases. By doing so, lawyers can supervise the actions of support staff to ensure that no errors are made,” Safi says.
Succession planning ensures that a law firm will thrive even after attorneys and partners leave. Putting teamwork on a pedestal is critical for succession planning.
4. Switch up the office design. Not all changes have to do with the team itself. By designing collaborative offices, law firms can promote teamwork much more easily. Perhaps this means having informal meeting spaces, like team rooms or coffee bars. “I see a lot of firms that have [made] changes [to] their physical environment in an effort to encourage more collaboration,” says Pickett.
5. Share the spotlight. Though McCraw pointed out that attorneys have that “hero urge” to intervene, if they want to truly break down autonomy barriers, they should not give their team members all of the answers. Rather, they should answer a question with a question to support growth and development of the entire team.
“It is hard for a person accustomed to being the hero to step back ... to share the spotlight," he says. "But if you want to encourage teamwork, it is necessary.”
CHANGING THE AUTONOMOUS CULTURE IN YOUR FIRM
Autonomy has its moments, like when an attorney is having a tough talk with a client or concentrating hard on a case. But overall, when everyone works together in unity, everyone benefits as well.
“In the end, a team-based approach is good for the lawyers, the firm and most importantly, the client,” says Walsh.