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Thursday, March 7th, 2013 technology  research  practice

A Practice Tip

  • Practice

Moving beyond Cooperation



Collaboration has many benefits. There are a few pitfalls and difficulties to avoid.  But with solid leadership, a law firm can overcome the potential difficulties and achieve real results by adopting a collaborative model.

According to Morten T. Hansen, author of “Collaboration – How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results“, the goal of collaboration is not collaboration but greater results.  Greater results is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if you are able to successfully adapt your firm to the new model.

(GJW:  With better results as the ultimate goal, it makes sense to get practical about identifying where we would like to see those better outcomes.

How do we do that?  Here is what I suggest.

Schedule a meeting for your practice group. Identify a recurring task or set of related tasks that might be handled more efficiently and effectively.    Discuss how these targeted tasks can be shared, divided and optimized.  Consider what processes can be developed to handle these tasks better as a group. Focus on maximizing each individual’s acknowledged strengths while contributing at an appropriate service-level, junior, senior or otherwise. Build a standardized new routine for all, using the best input received from your group.  Try it, hone it, review it, and keep improving it as a group.)

Now lawyers are not, by training or by practice, big collaborators. Rather, law school and legal practice have taught us to be skilled adversaries. We have a bigger hurdle than most to overcome to turn ourselves into collaborators.

I have often heard that lawyers are more skilled at tearing apart an idea – finding its weaknesses – than they are at creating synergies and looking for ways to make things work.  While finding the weaknesses in proposals is useful, such an approach works strongly against anyone proposing any new ideas on how to bring about change.  And that is not healthy in terms of having a law firm grow and change to meet new challenges.

(GJW: It’s not healthy, that is, unless we begin to use those well-honed critical skills to break down, analyze and seriously evaluate which of our firms’ processes have become outdated and then, begin a collective discovery of our groups’ low-hanging, untapped opportunities for improvement.)

There is no doubt that the world is changing to more of a collaborative model.  We are facing the fact that we have to change or the world will change without us.

John Chambers  Cisco CEO and Chairman, perhaps said it best:

I believe that companies and leaders who do not change will be left behind. And so I had to move from being a command and control leader. You have to learn that you make better decisions through collaboration.

Command and control is not unknown in law firms.  But we need to move past that into true collaboration. Problem is, this is hard.

In an article in Forbes Magazine entitled “Why Teams Don’t Collaborate”, Ron Ashkenas said that it is often easier to ‘say you are doing collaboration’ – than actually getting up and doing it. He continues:

True collaboration is difficult and time-consuming. It requires subordinating individual goals to collective achievement; it means engaging in tough, emotional give-and-take discussions with colleagues about strategies and ideas; and it often leads to working in new ways that may not be comfortable or easy. So given these difficulties, most teams find it easier to talk about collaboration rather than do it.

We want law firms to move beyond just talking about collaboration and actually integrate it into their business practices.

So how can we do this?  According to Ashkenas, teams start first with compliance.  Everyone on the team complies with the need to do something, but there is very little discussion or coordination between the team members.

Next is cooperation.  Now everyone is still drawing their own plans, but at least now they are sharing what they are doing with the group. But the overall characterization is still on individual action.

Lastly is true collaboration.  Here all the team members not only share their plans but they brainstorm together on generating new ideas of how to achieve the joint goals that transcend individual action.  And by working together, they can achieve outstanding results.

(GJW: By centering our collaborative discussions around specific, individual tasks and focusing on how the processes utilized to perform them can be streamlined, regularized and optimized,  we can avoid many of the pitfalls David discusses.  And remember, a true law firm collaboration won’t just involve J.D.’s and LL.B’s – don’t underestimate how much value and insight our assistants, law clerks, paralegals, articling students and other collaborators will add in these discussions.)

We need to move law firms into the final stage – true collaboration – but to do so we have to find a way to move beyond our inherent training and find ways to not just comply, not just cooperate, but seek out ways to move the adversarial boundary to outside the law firm. We can compete with other firms – and near-legal competitors who are eating our lunch –  better by collaborating within the firm and finding new ways to bring about synergy and creativity, by exercising leadership and vision to achieve true collaboration.

We are stronger together.


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