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It’s a fact of life: Many lawyers like to work alone. Even when lawyers congregate in packs, one of their most prized values is autonomy, the ability to practice their craft with little outside supervision. Granted, this has not impaired law firms’ success: Many firms with which we consulted in 2002 recorded their best year ever, even in a down economy. But could lawyers, who value hard work and high performance, do even better by working together? Many law firms already realize the benefits of collaboration. The most successful firms delegate strategic, big-picture items to a management or executive committee, entrusting these critical functions to collaborative groups rather than to the partnership as a whole. They establish a practice management system that fosters delegation within groups and teamwork between groups. They appoint relationship managers to handle client relationships on an ongoing basis, not just matter by matter. They set up industry-specific client service and marketing teams that focus on business as well as legal expertise. And they design compensation systems that foster and reward group efforts, as well as individual success. Despite these efforts, many firms still have “Lone Wolves” � lawyers who perform well and are highly valued by clients, but who either work alone or work with others grudgingly. In many cases, they can be abrasive when asked to participate in firm activities that do not benefit them directly. Since Lone Wolves perform well, they are usually left alone to do what they do best, especially in today’s economy, where billing and collections rule. That’s a mistake: Lone Wolves often try to undermine firm initiatives, in such areas as planning, marketing, and training, that are not directly related to short-term revenue generation. They set a bad example for associates and even other partners, and they send a message that work and ideas of other lawyers are not valuable. The challenge is to harness the power that Lone Wolves possess while encouraging them to work well with others. I recommend a seven-step strategy. • Create a collaborative environment. Much was made of knowledge management technology several years ago, although few firms have actually adopted it. Still, sharing information across practices and among lawyers is an essential starting point for the collaborative firm. Law firm document management and client relationship software have come a long way in the past few years. Many systems have become as easy to use as e-mail. However, the software is worthwhile only if there is content � and Lone Wolves hate to share. Practice managers should make sure that the firm’s document management and client relationship management systems contain content from all partners and, equally critically, information about all client relationships. • Make a distinction between client ownership and relationship management. Lone Wolves believe they are indispensable to the client, and often do everything possible to block or marginalize participation by other lawyers. One-on-one relationships limit growth across practice groups and, by creating portable business, they put the firm at risk if the Lone Wolf leaves. Clients want lawyers who both understand their business and know the breadth of matters being handled by the firm. That is a job for a relationship manager � a lawyer who can think strategically about the client and respond to inquiries about such things as timing, staffing, and billing. If a Lone Wolf can take a broader view and act in this capacity, terrific. If not, the Lone Wolf will need to be made accountable to the newly minted relationship manager. • Coordinate business development activities among practices. Lawyers join firms to specialize and hone their skills in a specific area. Ideally, this results in the sharing of skills, affording clients a higher degree of expertise as the firm matures and grows. Unfortunately, this can also result in internecine battles among practice areas as they vie for a client’s business, especially in a down economy. Addressing this problem calls for teamwork and innovation. Many firms have adopted a technique pioneered by accounting firms years ago: linking practice areas into industry teams that offer clients multipractice expertise, joined by knowledge of the client’s business. Clients are assured that their lawyers have industry expertise, and lawyers are required to work together for the clients’ benefit. • Market the firm, not individuals. Popular wisdom says that clients hire lawyers, not law firms. Lone Wolves, naturally, couldn’t agree more. And they were right � but not for long. Thanks largely to law firm branding campaigns, surveys of law firm clients conducted by Altman Weil show that clients now consider their selection of law firm almost as important as their selection of lawyer. Because this trend has accelerated so rapidly, it’s likely that in the next year or so, clients will see their selection of law firm as even more important than their selection of lawyer. • Find out what’s important to clients. Clients want team players, not prima donnas. Asking clients to evaluate performance can help identify lawyer problems while they can still be fixed. Even when clients are pleased with the firm, the practice, and the lawyers, they can offer suggestions for expanding the firm’s practice or deepening the client-firm relationship. Conducting client surveys on a regular basis (at least every three years) and formally interviewing clients annually can assure the firm that its lawyers are working in the best interests of the client and each other. • Evaluate partner performance and provide feedback. Corporations evaluate their key personnel and managers on a regular basis, but few law firms do so. It’s easy to see why: Partners are reluctant to critique each other’s performance, often because they don’t know exactly what their fellow partners do. Ironically, lawyers can quickly become experts in each other’s business during compensation deliberations. There are literally scores of models for evaluating partner performance, many of which can serve firms well. Just as in evaluating associates, it’s important to be consistent and fair, and to communicate often, especially when there are signs of partner trouble or discontent. • Make hard decisions when needed. If all else fails, law firms need to determine whether the Lone Wolf is a net asset or net liability. Keep in mind that even profitable or very profitable partners can still be a liability if their practice, social skills, or demands do not fit the firm profile. The usual management response to this problem, reducing compensation, can backfire, creating the worst of all possible worlds � an angry Lone Wolf. Set and apply standards fairly, evaluate regularly, and encourage team play. If the partner still stands out as a liability, the firm needs to decide whether it would function better if the partner � and, if necessary, the partner’s practice � worked elsewhere. Getting partners to work together is often the most difficult and recurring problem for law firm managers � and one of the most important issues that management must tackle. Moving away from an eat-what-you-kill compensation system is an important element in encouraging collaboration, but it is only part of the answer. By taking these seven additional steps, management can be assured that its partners, even the Lone Wolves, will work well with others. Charles A. Maddock is a principal with Altman Weil Inc., a legal management consultancy headquartered in Newtown Square, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article first appeared in The American Lawyer, an American Lawyer Media magazine.

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