Overcoming the Barriers to Collaboration
While being interviewed for a podcast yesterday morning, the host asked me what I saw as the
primary trend for the future of law firms. Although my answer is simple, the work behind it is not
We’ve talked about Heidi Gardner’s book, Smart Collaboration, before (and I again highly
recommend reading it). One of the things Gardner addresses in the book is the barriers to
collaboration. I’m sure many of these will be familiar to you, and that she’s so adept at identifying
them should give you comfort that she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to why
collaboration is so essential and useful to law firms and lawyers. Let’s examine a few of these, and
how you may overcome them within your own firms or law firm networks to achieve better
Competence Trust: The idea behind “competence trust” is “can I trust that the partner I
bring into my client relationship won’t screw up the relationship?” We all know that
referring your client to someone else is one of the riskiest things you can do as a lawyer.
You already understand your client’s needs, but if you bring in another lawyer, even from
within your own firm, will that person be as responsive as you are? Will he or she have the
competence necessary to understand the nuances of what your client needs? Will they
make you look good or not?
Interpersonal Trust: Along with the questions about trusting how a partner will treat a
client professionally, there are additional concerns about losing control over the matter,
not getting enough credit, and potentially losing the client to another lawyer.
Confidence & Capability: This one is about you – none of us like to “wing it.” Lawyers,
by nature, tend to be risk-averse, which is great for your practice, but not great for
collaboration. You may be hesitant to introduce topics with your clients that you’re not
well-versed in, where they may be opportunities for cross-selling or collaboration with
other lawyers in your firm, or at partner firms.
Lack of knowledge about firm offerings: Since it’s hard enough to keep up with what
your partners’ expertises are, it’s no wonder that lawyers struggle that much more when it
comes to knowledge about firms in their network. This is a real barrier to being able to
effectively collaborate, and one that is a moving target. It’s linked to the previous barrier of
not wanting to introduce topics that you’re not well-versed in.
Inefficiency of the collaborative process: Collaboration itself is inefficient for law
firms, because we haven’t been trained to work in teams, and the logistics can be daunting.
Plus, most firms operate as loosely-affiliated silo partnerships, while collaborative teams
require one person to take charge and ensure that the team has the expertise necessary,
meets the goals, and runs efficiently. That can be challenging when partners are used to
working independently, and most people’s management expertise is drawn only from
managing associates, and not peers.
Politics of collaboration: This is linked to the previous one, because you’re managing
your peers, which can be a messy process.
Unfortunately, I’m not here to tell you that there’s an easy fix that you can implement to remove
these barriers – smart collaboration takes work. But the work is well worthwhile, for many
reasons, as outlined in Gardner’s book. But it is possible to overcome them.
Gardner has some solid advice for how to address these barriers, which we’ll look at, but for the
first three, it comes down to something that we discuss constantly here – effectively building
relationships. The better you get to know the members of your firm and your colleagues in your
law firm networks or referral sources, the easier it will be to collaborate. I’m not suggesting that
you need to know everyone, because that’s clearly impractical. But there are ways you can get to
know the right people, and build strong relationships with them, which will help to make the
collaborative process more efficient.
Competence Trust & Interpersonal Trust
These two are primary stumbling blocks for many firms. Gardner recommends finding the person
who can play a brokering role – this person will have deep knowledge of others within your firm,
and can help get you to the right expertise when you need it. It may be another partner, it may be
a marketing professional or a business development executive, or it may be the administration in
your law firm network. I agree that this is an excellent starting point – certain people are great
connectors. You know it when you meet them, because they seem to know everyone, what they
do, and who is good at what they do, so you trust their judgment when it comes to making a
recommendation. It’s worth building a strong relationship with that person in order to have the
ability to call them at a moment’s notice and get the connection you need when you need it.
However, I’d also take it a step further, as I know there are lawyers who won’t refer a piece of
business or bring in another lawyer to work on a matter unless they know them personally –
that’s completely reasonable, given the risky nature of referring clients. For those cases, I’d
suggest that you strategically target lawyers within your firm, and within your law firm networks.
By working with your clients, and getting to know their businesses, you will have a good idea of
the types of work that they do and need done (if you don’t, now is the time to engage more with
them to find out). Identify the other types of work that could be done by your firm, what other
jurisdictions the company may have needs in, and then identify the lawyers within your
firm/network that you should be building relationships with. Note that these WON’T be lawyers
sharing a practice area with you necessarily – they will be lawyers that have specialist expertise
that you don’t have, who would work as part of a team with you to better serve your client. At this
time, you’re engaging in a learning process to get to know them better, and understand whether
they would be the right type of lawyer to work with your client. Doing this in a strategic, targeted
way, both within your firm and your larger network, is more efficient than trying to have a
broader understanding of every lawyer in your firm and their practice.
Greater interpersonal trust can be created with repeated, safe interactions with the lawyer – we
see this very often with firms (and clients!) who will try out smaller matters first to get an idea of
how the lawyer will handle their client before entrusting them with something more significant.
In a network, if you have access to referral data, you can reach out to other firms who have
worked with that lawyer and find out what it was like to work with them as well, and often, the
business portions of a conference will offer the opportunity to see how that lawyer interacts with
his or her colleagues in a professional setting. Within your firm, you can talk to other colleagues,
and work on smaller projects, even non-client matters, to try to build interpersonal trust.
Confidence & Capability and Lack of Knowledge
As I said earlier, none of us like to “wing it” if we don’t have to. So many lawyers will often avoid
introducing topics with their clients about which they are not well-versed – and frankly, it’s hard
enough for us all to stay up to date on our own practices and businesses these days, without also
having to try to stay up to date on everyone else’s as well. BUT, having general knowledge about
some key areas that are relevant to your clients can be extremely useful, especially when tied in
with an understanding of your colleagues’ capabilities.
When talking with lawyers in various practice areas, I often think of my dad’s warning that a little
bit of electrical knowledge is a dangerous thing (meaning, that when you have NO understanding
of electrical work, you won’t even attempt to switch out a light switch, but with a little bit of
knowledge, you may try much bigger projects that you are clearly not equipped to handle).
Several of our lawyers have begun to offer short sessions for experts in other practice areas on
what to look for, so that they know when to bring in a subject matter expert in other areas. This
kind of training can be invaluable – not only do you get that little bit of knowledge that you need
to sound competent to your clients, but you know when to bring in another lawyer, and who to
While that’s one way to garner additional confidence and capability, Gardner suggests two others:
identifying what your clients are reading (and reading it too) and developing a genuine interest in
the subject. This goes back to the idea of relationship-building with a strategic group of fellow
lawyers. When you fully engage in those relationships, and are genuinely interested in their
practices (and they are interested in yours), you will naturally learn more about each other.
This is tied into the idea of a lack of knowledge about your firm’s capabilities – to be clear, this
isn’t a criticism. It’s hard for any of us to keep track of what a firm’s offerings are, especially when
things seem to change so frequently these days, with lawyers adding new individual specialties,
laterals coming in, new practice groups starting up, etc. To combat this, start using every chance
you have to talk to your partners about what they do. While you want to build those deep
relationships with a strategic few people, you do want to have an ongoing broad understanding of your firm (and network’s) capabilities, so you can continuously be identifying new people to bring
into your collaborative teams and potentially be introducing to your clients. You can only do this
by talking to them.
Looking at your client alerts, firm website, and social channels is another way to keep an eye on
what the firm is pushing out and focusing on. It’s incredibly easy to bookmark and save things,
and you could start a best practice to email relevant things to yourself to follow up on. Gardner
also recommends reaching out to your professional development staff to talk to them about the
training manuals that they offer to associates or lateral hires, which will give you a great overview
of the firm’s offerings at a glance. Your law firm network will also share content from your
colleagues in other jurisdictions, and this is an opportunity to identify individual firms or lawyers
that you’d like to get to know better – if you haven’t met them previously, use your network
administration to make the introduction and leverage your membership.
Inefficiency & Politics of Collaboration
As we’ve said previously, collaboration isn’t easy, but it’s worthwhile. Lawyers may not be used to
working in teams, and the logistics and politics of doing so can be daunting. But if you put
together the right resources (which you’re working on through developing strong, strategic
relationships), launch the project effectively, and as with any other project worth doing, identify
clear goals and a purpose, it will be a more straightforward process. There does need to be a clear
leader or manager, and this person has to be willing to have the honest, difficult conversations
when something isn’t working, or a member of the collaborative team isn’t a fit with the client.
This can be tricky – my experience has been that when someone doesn’t want to give me bad
news, they would rather not communicate at all. But even difficult conversations can be an
opportunity to build relationships and create progress for the future, so they’re always worth
Collaboration is a challenge. It’s one that clients expect to see more of from their firms, and
technology, better engagement, and yes, even law firm networks, make it possible. Although there
are barriers, they’re all possible to address and overcome with careful planning and thought.
August 1, 2019
International Lawyers Network