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How (truly) collaborative and collegial are law firms?

James Stanton

We wrote the following piece last December based on over 200 responses from readers of our site,

Our query was, in a nutshell, how collegial and collaborative are law firms? And, why did we ask? Simple. Virtually every law firm claims to be collaborative and collegial. We decided to ask our readers about aspects of collaboration at their firms. Since, in the abstract “collegiality” and “collaboration” are, well, a little abstract, we thought attitudes and work around cross-serving efforts are a very tangible manifestation of the degree to which firms are (or aren’t) collaborative and collegial.

Our readership is largely (but, by no means only) US-based, so the piece (and the underlying research) reflect an American perspective. And, anecdotally, at least, non-US based firms do seem to evince a higher degree of collegiality. That said, I think it safe to say that there are kernels in this that will resonate with firms in any geography. On to the results….

So, just how collegial are law firms - in terms of collaborating on cross-serve opportunities? The overall answer is – not so much. That said, there are some intriguing nuances that came out in the research as well as some relatively easy ways to address possible shortcomings at your firm.

We looked at several “slices” of the respondent base to see if differences emerged. These slices include: all lawyers, those who identified as management (MPs/Chairs, executive committee members and practice group leaders), associates and business professionals (including C-suite members and administrators). We also looked at respondents from firms with more than 500 lawyers and those from firms with fewer than 100 lawyers. Don’t worry – we won’t be reporting out on all questions by all segments; I’m sure you have better meds for insomnia.

Let’s start with the good-ish news.

There is pretty widespread agreement that firms have the capacity and capabilities to cross serve current clients. It’s not news that many firms are burdened with excess capacity. Expanding relationships with current clients is one way to address this issue. Other ways are less welcome, but in some cases necessary.

And, not surprisingly, people largely agree that management supports collaborative efforts.

These are the high water marks when it comes to collaborating on cross-serve opportunities at law firms; when we get into the actual and necessary components of collaboration things begin to fall off the rails…..

Respondents’ reported understanding of the capabilities of lawyers within their firms or of the needs of their clients were, at best underwhelming and in fact a bit alarming. These are the two sides of the same coin of cross serving.

This lack of basic information is underscored by respondents’ much lower understanding of where the client’s needs intersect with their firms’ capabilities. Without this knowledge, it is not possible to effectively cross serve clients. Just can’t.

NB: In many such research projects, people tend to give themselves a higher mark than may be warranted, so the reality is likely worse than reported.

Moreover, there is pretty poor coordination between practice areas and offices when it comes to collaborating on cross-serve opportunities. To state the obvious, this is at the crux of cross serving. One relatively simple way to encourage better coordination between practice areas and offices is to track the “export” and “import” of work across practices and offices. And a cliché, but often true; what gets measured happens.

Perhaps most damning is what appears to be a significant lack of trust within law firms; you’ll note that none of these are even passing grades.

I’m hoping (hoping) that this is more of an indication of a lack of familiarity with others at the firm; if there truly is a lack of trust and disbelief that others will serve clients as well as they will – then cross-serving/collaboration exhortations and programs are pretty much toast and we should just go home. Getting to know others at your firm and what they’re capable of (as well as making sure others know what you do) does require a time commitment.

This cannot be accomplished solely by the MP or other managers visiting offices, video “town halls” or hosting the occasional social event. Those are necessary, but not sufficient. One of our favorite MPs of a global US-based firm describes this as a “contact sport;” lawyers taking the effort to meet individually or in small groups, working on firmwide initiatives or presenting opportunities to relationship partners on key clients.

When it comes to executing on a cross-serve program, the results get even more dismal. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice to say:

  • few believe there’s a good plan to pursue cross-serve opportunities,

  • not many believe there are clear goals for such undertakings,

  • and most feel there is little follow up on these kinds of efforts.

Perhaps not surprising is that few believe they are adequately incented to pursue cross opportunities. Certainly good citizenship and firm-first undertakings should not devolve into mere transactions, or quid-pro quos. That said, tangible contributions to the financial health and sustainability of the firm should be recognized.

(Note the outlier; those at firms with fewer than 100 lawyers – we’ll get to them later.)

OK before we go on, let’s take a little detour; there are a few fun facts I’d like to share – and then we’ll talk a bit about the (really not hard) things firms can do to gin up their cross-serve programs via enhanced collaboration.

First, have you (as have I) wondered if there’s a disconnect between management and the rest of the firm? Well on this topic wonder no more; there is a disconnect. Guess which way it runs? Management is much more bullish than others at their firm. This (mis-placed?) optimism was evinced across a variety of aspects of collaboration at their firms. A few examples where management’s responses were much more positive than others include:

  • Knowing the firm and knowing the client and knowing the intersection of client needs and our firm’s capabilities

  • We have the skills to pursue cross opportunities

  • We have clear goals for our cross-serve efforts

  • We provide sufficient training and tools to pursue cross-opportunities

  • Lawyers and business professionals are held accountable for cross opportunities

This would suggest, at the very least, that firm management secure a much more clear-eyed understanding of what is actually happening in the trenches – and rather than exhorting (often loudly) about the need to collaborate, put some real plans (with real teeth) in place. Absent that, the exhorting isn’t working and (as we’ve heard at many firms) folks are tired of hearing the same empty calls-to-action.

Also, interesting (at least to me) is that business professionals at firms, including C-suite members and administrators are much more bearish generally on aspects of their firms’ efforts to successfully collaborate. Following are some examples where business professionals are less positive than others:

  • Knowing the firm and knowing the client

  • We have a good plan to pursue cross opportunities

  • These is good coordination between practice groups and offices

  • Lawyers and others at my firm are responsive when cross-serve opportunities arise

  • Lawyers at the firm are generally comfortable pursuing cross opportunities.

  • I believe lawyers and others at the firm have the skills to pursue cross opportunities

As long-time readers of our site know, we believe a good indicator of success in Law Land is having a strong cadre of experienced professionals, who can expertly and effectively lead the business functions at a law firm. Importantly, these folks can bring a more business-oriented perspective to a firm’s management; they need not only a “place” at the table – but also a voice. They clearly have a different take on collaboration at firms – it might make sense to find out why.

There were some interesting differences in responses from larger firms versus those from folks at smaller ones. Here are a few examples.

Clearly, and somewhat intuitively, larger and smaller firms have different inherent advantages in pursuing cross-serve opportunities. Whether your firm is smaller or larger, you need to take a hard analytic look at your efforts and where needed compensate for inherent disadvantages in pursuing cross opportunities.

So, where does all this lead us? I think it’s pretty self-evident. Develop a plan. Execute it.

Before we leave you, however we think it’s important to understand that what it takes to build true collaboration at your firm is a whole lot easier than what many lawyers and law firms do on a regular basis. For example, getting to know your client’s industry seems like a cake walk compared to (say) structuring an asset acquisition of a target company or (for you litigators) preparing to cross-examine an expert on antitrust "market definition." Asking for client feedback is (really) a breeze compared to representing the issuer in a subordinated debt placement or licensing a package of related patents.

You get the idea; compared to the practice of law building effective cross-serve programs is duck soup.

So, why don’t more firms more aggressively or more systematically pursue this? Here’s a kinda wacky idea – perhaps all this stuff (and for fun, I’ll include other business fundamentals – such as project management and pricing) may, in fact, be just too obvious – and therefore, not perceived as being very important by lawyers. My hypothesis is that lawyers are educated and trained to value the really hard, arcane, unobvious stuff. Many of the most revered in Law Land are those who came up with something no one else has; a new interpretation of an existing statute or a new (convoluted) instrument. As one of our favorite Managing Partners puts it rather poetically, “The practice of law is about language, ideas, persuasion and judgment.”

Business, frankly isn’t all that poetic. Certainly there are moments of inspiration. Business people need to be persuasive and evince good judgement. But - business is a bit more left-brained than right.

We think smart firms bring in accomplished business people to complement those practicing law. Use these other professionals to develop smart, efficient plans that they will help the lawyers implement. The business folks won’t be practicing law – and the lawyers will (mostly) be able to focus on what they both do best and value most; practicing law.

Sounds like a good plan to me.

Oh, and, if you’re curious just how collaborative and collegial your firm (really) is – please let us know.

Janet Stanton is a partner at Adam Smith, Esq., which provides management consulting services to law firms globally.

#KnowledgeUpdates #JanetStanton

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