Lessons from Practicing Lawyers

From The Practice September/October 2015
Why attorneys work together

In sports, teamwork and collaboration are essential to the success of each athlete and every team. Depending on whom you talk to, the practice of law may not be a contact sport. What is clear is that clients are keeping score on how well their lawyers and their law firms work and play together. Moreover, judging from the perspectives of legal practitioners from small, medium-sized and large national law firms, they all agree that teamwork and collaboration are critical elements to achieving better outcomes for their clients and ensuring the financial wellness of their firms.

This article explores the views of several leading legal practitioners on what teamwork and collaboration mean in their day-to-day practices; to their law firms and clients; and most important, to the bottom line.

Complexity requires teamwork

Steven Wright
Steven Wright

The explosion and innovation in technology has not only transformed the way we live but also been a game changer in the practice of law. Steven Wright, a partner at Holland & Knight, notes that “in this day and time, lawyers and clients are working on the most complex issues at a pace never before imagined that often requires global expertise and teams of lawyers working together collaboratively.” Put another way, in order to manage client matters, lawyers have to utilize a more diverse group of skills and people.

“In order to be profitable, especially in these times, where clients are demanding more for less,” Wright says, “you have to efficiently use law firm resources. That’s where teamwork is important.” Wright insists that clients focus on the value proposition of results. “Clients are looking for output. Their perspective is through a lens that requires an efficient legal solution to a problem. However, when you get to that solution, as long as it is cost-effective, timely and thorough, there is an appropriate fee for such services, and clients are not as concerned about who works on their matters.” He adds, “Clients are not adverse to their lawyers collaborating. They want to get the right expertise; in fact, they encourage it.”

In order to be profitable where clients are demanding more for less. You have to efficiently use law firm resources. That’s where teamwork is important.

Steven Wright, partner at Holland & Knight

Economies of scale in large law firms enable such firms to reduce the cost to clients by involving lawyers from different offices who may be able to perform the same level of service at lower rates. Likewise, larger firms leverage their platform to generate more opportunities and reach more clients. A global economy requires a global reach and in turn networks of attorneys working together on behalf of their clients. Wright suggests, “Because of cost considerations and the necessity of technical skills not found in a traditional law firm, firms are forced to collaborate on projects in response to the higher demand of clients.”

Faith in others

If innovation in technology has changed the pace of the practice of law, the culture of teamwork and collaboration in law firms has placed a greater emphasis on the need for trusted colleagues. Depending on the size and culture of a law firm, it may be challenging to get to know your colleagues. Lawyers may not be as familiar with their partners and associates across the platform of a large national law firm, compared with a small or medium-sized firm. Steven Karzmer, a partner at Calfee, Halter & Griswold, notes, “I know who to call. Calfee has 155 lawyers across three offices. The bulk of our lawyers are in our Cleveland office.” Karzmer was in the Cleveland office for five years and worked with many people there. Following his move to the Columbus office, he knew whom he could go to in the Cleveland office when he or the firm’s clients needed assistance. “In 10 years the firm has grown and now has a Cincinnati office and a number of new people.”

Steven Karzmer
Steven Karzmer

This requires, however, an effort to get know your colleagues in other offices. As Karzmer points out, failing to reach out and make the right match for your client can also influence the outcome for the client. “It only takes one bad experience for a client to say this was a mistake.” Nevertheless, Karzmer does make the effort to ask around if in fact he does not know an attorney from another office, “to double-check and ask about reputation and experience.” He also remains engaged with matters he refers to other attorneys in his firm. “I am involved. I see all the e-mails. I know about deadlines so that I can ensure that the goals and deadlines are achieved. It is all about the expectations in the legal practice—nothing kills a relationship faster than telling somebody you’re going to do it on Tuesday, then don’t and tell them you can’t look at it until Friday.” What is clear is that teamwork and collaboration require heavy doses of trust and shared responsibility.

Headshot of Terence Rozier-Byrd
Terence Rozier-Byrd

Terence Rozier-Byrd, special counsel at Baker Botts, agrees. “One of the things I’ve focused on this past year is getting out and meeting with as many of my colleagues as I can across the various offices, with the hope that when they have a client or know someone who is a potential client who has a need for services in my area of expertise, that I would be able to assist them.” Sometimes one of the challenges to cross-selling is that people just don’t know what every person within their firm does, so part of it is promoting awareness and trying to identify opportunities where you may have an existing client who needs legal assistance in an area of expertise that someone else in the firm possesses.

The dividends of working together

Teamwork and collaboration can clearly benefit the client, but are there other factors that incentivize attorneys to work together? Wright has sat on Holland & Knight’s compensation committee for several years and points out that “collaboration is something that is valued … and there is a focus on how someone works together with others, how they contribute to an office, how they contribute to teams and how they contribute to the overall firm.” Rozier-Byrd largely agrees, saying that there is a significant financial benefit to collaborating with your colleagues. “You can create a one-stop shopping opportunity for your clients, which benefits the client and also the firm by way of additional revenue.” (For more, see “Collaboration in Law Firms: The New Wave of Client Service.”)

Headshot of Anthony E. Hubbard
Anthony E. Hubbard

Not all firms are clear about to what degree and how they should reward attorneys who make an effort to collaborate with others. For example, in a closed compensation system where an attorney has no idea what his or her partners are making and where compensation criteria metrics are often opaque, it is hard to determine if attorneys are in fact being rewarded for collaboration. It is therefore incumbent upon firm management that they make it clear that collaboration is valued. Anthony Hubbard, a partner at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, points out that lawyers at his firm are financially incentivized to work together.

At Mintz, the financial incentives are intended to align with the desired result of teamwork in both initiating and growing client relationships.  As to initiating, no attorney can get all the credit for initiating a relationship, so there is no disincentive for having other partners join in the initial pitch meeting.  As to growing the relationship, credit is distributed to those who help grow the client relationship, so those involved in growing an existing client are rewarded similar to those who initiate new clients.

Financial incentives can be tricky, however, and can provide disincentives to teamwork and collaboration. The challenge is particularly pronounced in some law firms where the compensation systems and committees are set up to have partners compete over origination credit for a new client, which happens in many law firms. Derek Davis, the executive director of the Center on the Legal Profession who has been a partner at four law firms, says that firms often have systems that discourage lawyers from collaborating. Davis notes that “many law firms actively attempt to create competition between lawyers by creating clear winners and losers. That hinders teamwork.” When there are clear winners and losers, no one wants to collaborate. Everyone is in it for himself or herself.

Because you want lawyers to work together and generate positive outcomes for their clients, you don’t want them fighting over who will get paid more for having a larger share of the origination credit. In firms where the incentives are not well defined, it is often left to the individual attorneys to establish a protocol that will encourage others to collaborate. For example, if you are going to pitch a potential new client who may require an expertise that you may not possess, establish up front how credits will be shared with the colleagues you plan to invite to the pitch. That way there will be no surprises and, more important, your colleagues will feel that they too are stakeholders in the new matter.

Teamwork across difference

Are there identifiable practice areas, types of lawyers or firms that are better suited to collaborate than others? The answer is unclear. Most lawyers and law firms will say that collaboration is essential to their practice. That said, just as law firms are not all the same, neither are individual lawyers. When asked whether there was a generational aspect to one’s approach to collaborating, most say that they found no difference between a younger or older attorney’s willingness to work together on client matters, although one lawyer observed that younger attorneys appear to be better collaborators, possibly because of their advanced skill in utilizing social networks and social media. Another attorney noted that diversity and gender also play important roles in teamwork and collaboration. Expertise and talent are important identifiers in matching skills with client needs, but knowing your client and the interpersonal dynamics are equally important when staffing and inviting others to participate in client matters.

Many law firms actively attempt to create competition between lawyers by creating clear winners and losers. That hinders teamwork.

Derek Davis, executive director at HLS Center on the Legal Profession

More and more clients are signaling either directly or subtly to their counsel that diversity of ideas and people matter in their engagements. In fact, often clients ask their law firms to complete questionnaires about their firm and the individuals the firm intends to staff on the legal team. Obviously knowing what your client wants is essential. Hubbard says, “The benefits of teamwork and collaboration inure even more significantly to clients we have worked with over longer periods of time.” They increasingly trust that outside counsel will bring the right talent to the table because you know the client better and those clients know the firm that much better.

A word of warning, however. Davis points out, “You would never invite another lawyer to participate simply because of his or her race, gender or sexual orientation. But you also need to be sensitive to the intangible experiences that people bring to a matter that may enhance the quality of the dynamics of the working group experience and, in turn, the outcome or results for the client.”

Building teams

As legal careers have become more mobile and the competition for talent more challenging, law firms are becoming increasingly more aware of the importance of attracting individuals and practice groups who are willing to work together for better outcomes. Davis says, “When firms are looking at lateral hires or acquiring a small practice group, they pay close attention not only to expertise and quality but also to the intangible attribute of ‘fit.’ Integrating an attorney to a firm is expensive and time-consuming. Introducing an attorney who cannot work well with others, often referred to as a ‘lone wolf,’ can be disruptive to the culture of the firm and could ultimately impact the firm’s reputation.”

Expertise and talent are important identifiers in matching skills with client needs, but knowing your client and the interpersonal dynamics are equally important.

Assessing a lawyer’s collaborative or teamwork skills is not as hard as it might seem. It is tougher to assess a new lawyer with no clients or book of business than a lateral hire with a portfolio. Firms approach the issue in a number of ways. For lateral hires, firms can review the lawyer’s client portfolio and determine if his or her success on matters requires assistance from practice areas outside of his or her expertise. In those cases, firms pay close attention to how successful the lateral performed at his or her previous firm. Another example might involve the willingness of a lateral hire to institutionalize his or her client matters. If a lawyer can easily take his or her clients from one firm to another without relying on associates or other partners, you may want to avoid that type of employee. With new young lawyers coming into a firm with little client experience, assessing their ability to work with others is more challenging. Only through extensive discussions and interviews can you gauge their ability or inclination to work with others.

Teamwork and collaboration matter

What should we make of all this? Practicing law—the art of finding solutions for your clients—requires collaborating with others. It requires bringing together individuals with different expertise to produce a successful result for the client. The willingness of attorneys in any firm to share their expertise and their work with others contributes to the overall health of the firm, as well as the individual lawyers themselves. Davis sums up this sentiment: “There is an old African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ Throughout my practice, that has always been my mantra. I would hope that more and more lawyers would adopt it as their own. It will make them and their firms more successful.”


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