While being interviewed for a podcast yesterday morning, the host asked me what I saw as the primary trend for the future of law firms. Although my answer is simple, the work behind it is not – collaboration.
We’ve talked about Heidi Gardner’s book, Smart Collaboration, before (and I again highly recommend reading it). One of the things Gardner addresses in the book is the barriers to collaboration. I’m sure many of these will be familiar to you, and that she’s so adept at identifying them should give you comfort that she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to why collaboration is so essential and useful to law firms and lawyers. Let’s examine a few of these, and how you may overcome them within your own firms or law firm networks to achieve better collaborative results.
- Competence Trust: The idea behind “competence trust” is “can I trust that the partner I bring into my client relationship won’t screw up the relationship?” We all know that referring your client to someone else is one of the riskiest things you can do as a lawyer. You already understand your client’s needs, but if you bring in another lawyer, even from within your own firm, will that person be as responsive as you are? Will he or she have the competence necessary to understand the nuances of what your client needs? Will they make you look good or not?
- Interpersonal Trust: Along with the questions about trusting how a partner will treat a client professionally, there are additional concerns about losing control over the matter, not getting enough credit, and potentially losing the client to another lawyer.
- Confidence & Capability: This one is about you – none of us like to “wing it.” Lawyers, by nature, tend to be risk-averse, which is great for your practice, but not great for collaboration. You may be hesitant to introduce topics with your clients that you’re not well-versed in, where they may be opportunities for cross-selling or collaboration with other lawyers in your firm, or at partner firms.
- Lack of knowledge about firm offerings: Since it’s hard enough to keep up with what your partners’ expertises are, it’s no wonder that lawyers struggle that much more when it comes to knowledge about firms in their network. This is a real barrier to being able to effectively collaborate, and one that is a moving target. It’s linked to the previous barrier of not wanting to introduce topics that you’re not well-versed in.
- Inefficiency of the collaborative process: Collaboration itself is inefficient for law firms, because we haven’t been trained to work in teams, and the logistics can be daunting. Plus, most firms operate as loosely-affiliated silo partnerships, while collaborative teams require one person to take charge and ensure that the team has the expertise necessary, meets the goals, and runs efficiently. That can be challenging when partners are used to working independently, and most people’s management expertise is drawn only from managing associates, and not peers.
- Politics of collaboration: This is linked to the previous one, because you’re managing your peers, which can be a messy process.
Unfortunately, I’m not here to tell you that there’s an easy fix that you can implement to remove these barriers – smart collaboration takes work. But the work is well worthwhile, for many reasons, as outlined in Gardner’s book. But it is possible to overcome them.
Gardner has some solid advice for how to address these barriers, which we’ll look at, but for the first three, it comes down to something that we discuss constantly here – effectively building relationships. The better you get to know the members of your firm and your colleagues in your law firm networks or referral sources, the easier it will be to collaborate. I’m not suggesting that you need to know everyone, because that’s clearly impractical. But there are ways you can get to know the right people, and build strong relationships with them, which will help to make the collaborative process more efficient.
Competence Trust & Interpersonal Trust
These two are primary stumbling blocks for many firms. Gardner recommends finding the person who can play a brokering role – this person will have deep knowledge of others within your firm, and can help get you to the right expertise when you need it. It may be another partner, it may be a marketing professional or a business development executive, or it may be the administration in your law firm network. I agree that this is an excellent starting point – certain people are great connectors. You know it when you meet them, because they seem to know everyone, what they do, and who is good at what they do, so you trust their judgment when it comes to making a recommendation. It’s worth building a strong relationship with that person in order to have the ability to call them at a moment’s notice and get the connection you need when you need it.
However, I’d also take it a step further, as I know there are lawyers who won’t refer a piece of business or bring in another lawyer to work on a matter unless they know them personally – that’s completely reasonable, given the risky nature of referring clients. For those cases, I’d suggest that you strategically target lawyers within your firm, and within your law firm networks. By working with your clients, and getting to know their businesses, you will have a good idea of the types of work that they do and need done (if you don’t, now is the time to engage more with them to find out). Identify the other types of work that could be done by your firm, what other jurisdictions the company may have needs in, and then identify the lawyers within your firm/network that you should be building relationships with. Note that these WON’T be lawyers sharing a practice area with you necessarily – they will be lawyers that have specialist expertise that you don’t have, who would work as part of a team with you to better serve your client. At this time, you’re engaging in a learning process to get to know them better, and understand whether they would be the right type of lawyer to work with your client. Doing this in a strategic, targeted way, both within your firm and your larger network, is more efficient than trying to have a broader understanding of every lawyer in your firm and their practice.
Greater interpersonal trust can be created with repeated, safe interactions with the lawyer – we see this very often with firms (and clients!) who will try out smaller matters first to get an idea of how the lawyer will handle their client before entrusting them with something more significant. In a network, if you have access to referral data, you can reach out to other firms who have worked with that lawyer and find out what it was like to work with them as well, and often, the business portions of a conference will offer the opportunity to see how that lawyer interacts with his or her colleagues in a professional setting. Within your firm, you can talk to other colleagues, and work on smaller projects, even non-client matters, to try to build interpersonal trust.
Confidence & Capability and Lack of Knowledge
As I said earlier, none of us like to “wing it” if we don’t have to. So many lawyers will often avoid introducing topics with their clients about which they are not well-versed – and frankly, it’s hard enough for us all to stay up to date on our own practices and businesses these days, without also having to try to stay up to date on everyone else’s as well. BUT, having general knowledge about some key areas that are relevant to your clients can be extremely useful, especially when tied in with an understanding of your colleagues’ capabilities.
When talking with lawyers in various practice areas, I often think of my dad’s warning that a little bit of electrical knowledge is a dangerous thing (meaning, that when you have NO understanding of electrical work, you won’t even attempt to switch out a light switch, but with a little bit of knowledge, you may try much bigger projects that you are clearly not equipped to handle). Several of our lawyers have begun to offer short sessions for experts in other practice areas on what to look for, so that they know when to bring in a subject matter expert in other areas. This kind of training can be invaluable – not only do you get that little bit of knowledge that you need to sound competent to your clients, but you know when to bring in another lawyer, and who to call.
While that’s one way to garner additional confidence and capability, Gardner suggests two others: identifying what your clients are reading (and reading it too) and developing a genuine interest in the subject. This goes back to the idea of relationship-building with a strategic group of fellow lawyers. When you fully engage in those relationships, and are genuinely interested in their practices (and they are interested in yours), you will naturally learn more about each other.
This is tied into the idea of a lack of knowledge about your firm’s capabilities – to be clear, this isn’t a criticism. It’s hard for any of us to keep track of what a firm’s offerings are, especially when things seem to change so frequently these days, with lawyers adding new individual specialties, laterals coming in, new practice groups starting up, etc. To combat this, start using every chance you have to talk to your partners about what they do. While you want to build those deep relationships with a strategic few people, you do want to have an ongoing broad understanding of your firm (and network’s) capabilities, so you can continuously be identifying new people to bring into your collaborative teams and potentially be introducing to your clients. You can only do this by talking to them.
Looking at your client alerts, firm website, and social channels is another way to keep an eye on what the firm is pushing out and focusing on. It’s incredibly easy to bookmark and save things, and you could start a best practice to email relevant things to yourself to follow up on. Gardner also recommends reaching out to your professional development staff to talk to them about the training manuals that they offer to associates or lateral hires, which will give you a great overview of the firm’s offerings at a glance. Your law firm network will also share content from your colleagues in other jurisdictions, and this is an opportunity to identify individual firms or lawyers that you’d like to get to know better – if you haven’t met them previously, use your network administration to make the introduction and leverage your membership.
Inefficiency & Politics of Collaboration
As we’ve said previously, collaboration isn’t easy, but it’s worthwhile. Lawyers may not be used to working in teams, and the logistics and politics of doing so can be daunting. But if you put together the right resources (which you’re working on through developing strong, strategic relationships), launch the project effectively, and as with any other project worth doing, identify clear goals and a purpose, it will be a more straightforward process. There does need to be a clear leader or manager, and this person has to be willing to have the honest, difficult conversations when something isn’t working, or a member of the collaborative team isn’t a fit with the client. This can be tricky – my experience has been that when someone doesn’t want to give me bad news, they would rather not communicate at all. But even difficult conversations can be an opportunity to build relationships and create progress for the future, so they’re always worth having.
Collaboration is a challenge. It’s one that clients expect to see more of from their firms, and technology, better engagement, and yes, even law firm networks, make it possible. Although there are barriers, they’re all possible to address and overcome with careful planning and thought.