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The overwhelming focus of legal training is about developing individual knowledge and technical skills. Yet the nature of our profession’s work today, certainly at larger firms, is about cooperating to deliver a service and advice to a client in a way that no one individual lawyer could ever deliver by themselves. In other words, it is about collaborating. Despite the importance of collaboration, little thought or attention is given to it until you arrive at a law firm and have to adapt the skills that you learned in other ways (team sports, voluntary work or class assignments, for example) to a new purpose.

Collaboration operates on different levels in a lawyer’s professional life.  Collaborating with colleagues within your firm of different levels and disciplines is an essential part of delivering value-added work for clients and for operating as a collegiate, joined-up firm. The research that Heidi Gardner has done at Harvard Law School provides convincing evidence of the importance of collaboration to law firms.

The particular challenges of making collaboration a reality will depend on the individual configuration of your firm. They could include operating across multiple geographies with different cultures, remuneration structures and market conditions; or across practice areas that have occasionally conflicting objectives as to the proportion of ‘standalone’ work and ‘service’ work that they should be doing. I would reject both of these labels for reasons that I will touch on below. It is clear that these types of collaboration not only makes financial sense for the firm, but they are probably vital for the long-term survival of the profession as a whole. 

As work becomes more commoditised and as we prepare for the advent of artificial intelligence, the pressure is on to contextualise advice for clients and to spot under-serviced and complex needs in client organisations. In order to win high-value work, firms need to offer a compelling mix of exactly the right disciplines, experience and approach. That blend can rarely be provided by a single practice area alone. If you are going to find yourself in the crosshairs of client needs, you are going to need to collaborate. Also, as many larger clients look to reduce their panels, the more practice areas you are serving within a client organisation, the less likely you are to be summarily chopped in a panel downsizing. 

Collaborating with clients themselves is becoming an increasing reality for law firms. Of course lawyers have collaborated with clients for years in the sense of trying to understand their needs and help them. What I mean here, however, is a much more fundamental attitude of embedding the firm in the client organisation. Personnel secondments both ways, intranets, integrated IT tools and joint pro bono initiatives are good examples of the things that we are seeing and which epitomise this broader approach to collaborating with clients.

Collaborating with the other law firms that you are working with on a transaction is a slightly more controversial area. Clients generally hire law firms to be fiercely protective of the clients’ interests. Clearly in contentious matters the whole system is set up to encourage a less than collaborative approach (although the Woolf reforms were a good example of meaningful steps towards a less combative framework). In transactional work clients hate grandstanding, egotistical, over-aggressive lawyers getting in the way of deals. Personal reputations for this type of behaviour reflect badly on the firms concerned.  Lawyers starting out in their careers should start to build a reputation for being collaborative in the way that they approach things wherever possible. In some ways social media and the directories have made the profession more of a fishbowl even though it is, in numerical terms, larger. 

Finally, collaborating with professionals who operate immediately adjacent to the legal field, advising clients on issues in parallel with you, is a powerful thing.  They could be investment bankers, actuaries, accountants, environmental consultants, insurance brokers, surveyors or expert witnesses, to name a few examples. Clients never cease to be impressed when behind-the-scenes advisers get together and present a joined-up solution rather than requiring the client to join the dots themselves. In that regard one of the best professional experiences of my career has been collaborating very closely over a decade with one of the Big Four accountancy firms to provide a totally integrated service at the request of a client. I like to think that both organisations have learned a lot by doing that as well as having a happy and highly remunerative client.

As a concept collaboration sounds straightforward, but converting it into reality can be highly challenging. Here are a few thoughts about making collaboration happen in practice:

          This is not about cross selling – it is about creating a culture and attitude about the way that people work and service clients together.  If you think of it as selling, not only will it create the wrong attitude internally, there is a strong risk of pushback from the client side. It is about integrating advice and working together, not simply introducing others who then operate effectively solo. Hence my objection to the labels ‘service’ and ‘standalone’ work. 

          Be prepared to give a lot before you get much in return. If colleagues can see that you are serious about this it will help to overcome the natural cynicism and distrust that can undermine this type of initiative.

          Be patient but look for results. Focus on the substance of what you are trying to achieve, not on creating working groups and meetings for their own sake. Be clear about individual responsibility for delivery and then check to make sure that things that have been promised are delivered.

          Be bold and not too tentative in your ambitions. You can be realistic when you review the results, but if you do not aim high you will never achieve anything in an internal initiative. Those messages may seem contradictory (and in some ways they are) but managing ambiguous and conflicting messages lies at the centre of successful leadership of any initiative in a law firm!

          Listen carefully to what the clients want and what areas of their needs would most benefit from a truly joined-up and collaborative approach.  There is no point in looking only at your own skills and resources and dishing something up to the client that does not meet a clear need.

          Understand and deal with the specific obstacles to collaboration that your organisation suffers from. For example, if there are problems in the way that your compensation systems are designed, talk to management about trying to address them. If there are some big egos that do not buy-in, then circumnavigate them and they will soon realise they are missing out. 

Who knows if my predictions about the future of the profession are right. But over time the skill of collaboration may become so central to everything that lawyers at larger firms do that one day it may even be taught at law school. 

Charles Martin is senior partner at Macfarlanes.

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