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The Collaboration Imperative for Today's Law Firms: Leading High-Performance Teamwork for Maximum Benefit

28 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2014 Last revised: 15 Nov 2014

Heidi K. Gardner

Harvard Law School

Date Written: October 31, 2014

Abstract

The greatest asset in any knowledge-based organization, such as a professional service firm (PSF), is the expertise of its professionals. In recent decades, most top-tier PSFs have focused on expertise specialization, creating narrowly defined practice areas and rewarding professionals for developing reputations in ever more precise niches. The collective expertise in such firms has thus become distributed across people, places and practice groups.

Increasingly, however, the growing complexity and integrative nature of client issues demand that professionals collaborate with others throughout the firm (and often around the world) who have the complementary specialist expertise necessary to develop and serve clients. Further, the continuing globalization of business means that the clients of PSFs are demanding seamless, multinational service. Counsel must frequently collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries with far-off partners to ensure that work is aligned with the client’s global strategy and accounts for country-specific issues. For example, a patent dispute in China might require lawyers in the United Kingdom to collaborate with litigators in Shanghai who not only are highly qualified in subject-matter competence, but also have a deep understanding of the language, culture and political ramifications of identifying, maintaining and protecting trademarks and overall brand strategy in the region.

Many PSFs have therefore concluded that to gain or even maintain competitive advantage, accumulating star talent is no longer enough. Rather, in order to maximize the value and output of such individuals, their diverse and distributed knowledge must be integrated. By bringing together professionals with different bases of expertise, a collaborative approach to serving clients has the potential to develop more innovative outcomes that are customized to the specific needs of the client, thereby increasing satisfaction and repeat business. Moreover, as individuals in a firm bring together their distinct expertise and knowledge to form innovative solutions, they may create entirely new types of services that can attract new clients.

Some of the very drivers that are forcing firms toward a more collaborative client-service approach, however, are the same factors that make collaboration increasingly difficult. Collaboration involves knowledge and expertise sharing, introducing colleagues to one’s own clients, and working across structural and interpersonal barriers to pitch work and serve clients. Such collaboration requires trust – both a deep respect for a colleague’s competence (“I trust you not to make a blunder”) and a belief in his integrity (“I trust you won’t undermine my relationship with my client”). My research shows that when people face high performance pressure – the sort of high-stakes client situation where it is most vital to access and use the firm’s best experts – collaboration becomes harder because professionals tend to become risk averse and may attempt to exert control by limiting access to their client. Ironically, collaboration suffers just when it should be most beneficial. Section 2 of this chapter explores the challenges of collaboration in today’s legal environment.

By developing and leveraging a well-honed collaborative capability, PSFs can work efficiently and effectively across knowledge gaps, enabling them to perform the complex, multidisciplinary work that their clients increasingly demand. My research demonstrates how collaboration benefits not only the firm, but also the individual lawyers who work jointly with other partners to serve and develop clients. Section 3 of this chapter focuses on the outcomes of collaboration.

If the benefits of collaboration make it worthwhile to invest in overcoming the challenges, the question becomes, “How do we achieve greater collaboration?” My research has investigated not only best practices of firms with a long-standing tradition of collaboration, but also other firms’ transitions from highly individualistic to more collaborative working. Section 4 of this chapter provides specific steps that law firms, their formal leaders and individual lawyers can take to lay foundations for enhanced collaboration.

Suggested Citation

Gardner, Heidi K., The Collaboration Imperative for Today's Law Firms: Leading High-Performance Teamwork for Maximum Benefit (October 31, 2014). HLS Center on the Legal Profession Research Paper No. 2014-23. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2517314

Heidi K. Gardner (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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