The word “collaboration” is an easy one to bandy about. But many firms struggle to work out what it means for them – and how to do it- especially in an increasingly virtual workspace.

The case for strong collaboration in any legal firm is compelling, with recent research from Harvard Law School’s Heidi Gardner showing a clear connection between a firm’s ability to collaborate and the profitability of its clients. If a firm knows how to pool its resources and expertise – across different practice specialities and geographies – the clear winner is the client, whose legal matters know no boundaries. And when the client wins, so does the firm. Not only are fees higher – client satisfaction soars, as does loyalty and referrals.

But here’s the rub: law firms aren’t typically hardwired for collaboration. Practice structures and a focus on individual inputs like billable hours and fee generation can make working solo the more obvious (and perhaps more comfortable) path to tread. For any legal workplace to be truly collaborative, though, the people within it who need to be geared towards working collaboratively.

This means that firms should look at getting a few key ingredients right:

  1. Why would I?

To get beyond the feel-good factor of collaboration, leaders need to help people see the real commercial opportunities associated with collaboration. One of the best ways of doing this is by identifying and sharing stories of where collaboration has yielded a real upside for clients and for the firm. Even better, look for stories where collaboration took some effort – where the lawyers involved had to work out a way to collaborate effectively, rather than it being an easy win. These then become “hero” stories – symbolic of what’s possible for everyone, and with far greater impact than a training session or a poster on the wall.

  1. Who would I?

Collaboration starts with connection. Individual lawyers need to know who to speak to, and this is made much easier if there’s already some kind of rapport or connection. Workplaces that thrive on collaboration are set up to make it easy to constantly grow your internal network. Here are some examples:

  • Practice teams routinely invite lawyers from other areas to their team meetings, asking them to showcase an aspect of their work – to help people see what’s possible.
  • Lawyers are seconded to different practice areas or offices for short stints (it’s no surprise that graduate lawyers, after a single year of rotations, are often the most connected people in the firm).
  • Does the way we work lend itself to collaboration? For example, is it easy for people to contribute their point of view in meetings or to work together on a solution. There are some great collaboration tools that allow many people to contribute simultaneously – especially in the virtual space. Trello, Google Docs and Miro are just 3 of my favourites.
  1. How do I?

Collaboration takes skill. People need to know how to get others to buy into their ideas – their ability to influence, negotiate and jointly solve problems comes to the fore. Firms can build collaboration as an organisational capability by equipping their people with shared language, tools and methods to guide them through collaborative decision-making – that way, people can invest all of their energy in the opportunity. Take the example of one engineering firm I worked with, who created a matrix for consultants to use in assessing opportunities. Not only did this take the hard work out of deciding whether to pursue a new piece of work, but engineers were also shown how to use the matrix to collaborate with others across the firm – ensuring the real potential of each and every deal was realised.

About the author

Simon Dowling is an expert in making collaboration happen. He is a former lawyer and is the author of Work with Me: How to get people to buy into your ideas (Wiley).  If you are looking for help with getting your team “humming” or you want more information on Simon’s popular online course Get Heard. Get Results go to www.simondowling.com.au.