This article appeared in Marketing the Law Firm, an ALM/Law Journal Newsletters publication reporting on the latest, and most effective strategies. For Chief Marketing Officers, Managing Partners, Law Firm Marketing Directors, Administrators, Consultants.

So much has been written about leadership. Hundreds of books, thousands of articles.

Leadership means so much more than setting a strategy and dealing with the shareholders, although those are important and critical elements of leadership. Leadership means creating safe and collaborative environments for people who work at the firm. And, this means making or facilitating a leadership team to make tough decisions. “Everyone counts” is the rule.

Aligning behaviors with expectation is critical and setting the stage for a truly collaborative work environment means an inclusive work environment across all areas of work — lawyers, staff, business professionals. And, I’m not talking about just the lawyers; it’s the entire firm. Everyone who works at the firm is responsible for treating others with respect and for being honest.

Why is this so important now? Pressure and stress are people killers. Adding stress by having people who are not collaborative and don’t treat others well, or those who do not work well across offices or practice groups, will ultimately hurt the efforts of a department, the firm, and ultimately everyone’s ability to be successful. Creating a collaborative culture means creating a “constructive” culture.

According to global culture experts at Human Synergistics, a constructive culture is one “where people gain enjoyment from their work, develop themselves and take on new and interesting activities. It also means the culture involves expectations for being supportive, constructive, and open to influence in dealing with one another. The constructive type of culture creates a high performing organization. Compare this to one that is Passive/Defensive, which involves expectations for conforming, following the rules and making a good impression or expectations for being non-committal, never being blamed for mistakes and staying out of trouble.”

“A self-actualizing, constructive culture includes cultural norms where reward systems are clearly tied to effort and performance; where managers rely upon knowledge and expertise as their primary sources of power (as opposed to relying on their position or their control over resources) and where the firm’s mission and values are communicated and reinforced through role models, ceremonies and other cultural examples.”

We can measure the effectiveness of a culture, its leaders and managers through assessments that provide statistical data and analytics for where a firm, its departments and its offices are today with respect to a collaborative and constructive culture, and where the gaps are. The data is quite remarkable and accurate and helps to set the firm’s strategy in motion for a focused effort.

Collaborative cultures soar in profitability, talent acquisition and retention, client retention and client service compared to cultures where collaboration is not a strategic backbone of the organization.

Collaboration is a key to many good activities including:

  • Retention and expansion of existing clients;
  • Selection and implementation of an important resource;
  • Hiring and integration of new lawyers, laterals, business professionals and staff;
  • Working in partnership with clients across all levels of the firm;
  • Increasing client service; and
  • Increasing firm profits.

Building a culture of collaboration takes more than saying, “We are focused on having a collaborative culture,” and handing out Heidi Gardner’s latest white paper or research on the topic at a firm retreat (and yes, this is what some firms are doing). And, while all research and data confirming collaboration’s outcomes is the way to go, it takes a top-down commitment at every level. What Gardner’s work does show us is that a collaborative culture outperforms other cultures. Yet, in today’s law firms, there is work to be done. Reward (at all levels) must support the norms expected and not, for example, just top business getters.

Building a culture of collaboration and respect takes time, requires measurement (what is our current culture now?), and a strategic plan with implementation activities built in for every department and area of the firm. Tough to get started on this? Not sure the firm is ready? Start with one department that an individual leader/manager will oversee. Once the team is in motion to operate functionally and constructively, the results will be incredibly clear.

Here are some pointers for heading in the right direction:

  • Start by conducting an assessment using statistical data assessments to measure where the team is now (whether it’s firm, department, operations team, office, etc.). Ideally, the assessment phase begins with the firm’s leadership team so they may examine their group’s culture and norms and begin to understand the measures, the norms, and the potential gaps between expectations and behaviors.
  • Provide a day, at least, of training to help firm/team members understand what the baseline measures mean and how each individual may contribute to the overall success of the ultimate, long-term strategy.
  • Execute on a clear, decisive game plan for closing the gap between where the team is today and the team’s desired (Human Synergistics would call this “ideal”) culture.
  • Reinforce what the team is trying to achieve and what it will mean to accomplish a truly collaborative approach to the business goals.
  • Measure 12 to 18 months from the initial baseline measure and celebrate where the team is now compared to its initial baseline

Something to keep in mind is that creating a collaborative culture takes time and effort. We know from Dr. Larry Richard’s ongoing testing within the legal community that lawyers test the highest in skepticism, the lowest in resilience, the highest in impatience and the highest in autonomy (just a few of the results from testing over 8,000 lawyers) (seewww.lawyerbrain.com).

These traits will create a high tide of resistance for transforming the culture, will be worth acknowledging right up front with the firm members, and will be necessary to keep in mind when moving toward a culture of collaboration. Fortunately, there is more than enough statistical data if one were to request it, to show that the ultimate outcomes are worth the effort and transformation.

While this article may make building a collaborative culture seem somewhat simple, it is as much work to build it as it is to sustain. It is leadership and people-dependent to be successful. With leadership and the firm working together, the firm will jump to new levels of success and profits. It is worth the investment of time and focus.

*****

Silvia Coulter, a founding principal of LawVision Group, is a sought-after consultant in the legal industry. She specializes in helping firms with revenue growth, leadership and culture. She may be reached at scoulter@lawvisiongroup.com.