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Working Well With Others

by Michael Radford

on 10 January, 2019

4 Steps to a Functional Legal Team

A good case management system can enable collaboration and smooth your team’s interactions. But no tool will save you from a dysfunctional culture.

To get the most out of your legal technology, here are 4 ways to build high-performing teamwork into your culture.

1. Gather the Metrics

Complex legal, financial, and technological issues mean that attorneys need to specialize. More attorneys are defined by an ever-narrower micro-niche. But to truly thrive amid the growing complexity of the law, one more step is needed: specialized attorneys working together.

Having a positive team dynamic means a healthier and more engaging workplace. But it also feeds your bottom line. Extensive data analysis has shown what this looks like:

  • In firms that collaborate well, profits skyrocket with each additional practice group that serves each client. In one firm, revenues were 5.7 times higher for clients served by 3 practice groups than by only one. And those served by 5 practice groups, fees were 17.6 times higher.
  • Collaboration also breeds client loyalty and subsequent stability. 75% of clients who work with only one partner say they’d consider switching firms if that partner left. That number drops to 10% for clients served by two or more partners.
  • Because of this, among the largest global law firms, at least 70% include collaboration-related goals in their strategic plans.

Look at your own metrics to understand how successful your team is with collaboration. Check to see how frequently it happens, and what financial benefits resulting from it. This can help you understand whether you should first focus on more instances of collaboration, or just higher quality of the collaboration that happens.

To benefit from regular metrics, look for a case management system with advanced reporting, and tools to help you visualize your numbers.

2. Diagnose Your Dysfunctions

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Happy teams aren’t all alike, but they have all managed to clear the same general suite of hurdles. In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni set out the most common of these hurdles.

  1. An absence of trust leads to a refusal to be vulnerable within the group. They hide failure and insecurity and avoid collaboration.
  2. Fear of conflict can be diagnosed by the lack of constructive, passionate debate. Watch for a false sense of harmony — it could be a sign that members are scared to properly critique or workshop plans.
  3. Lack of commitment occurs when team members don’t have sufficient buy-in on group decisions.
  4. Avoidance of accountability leads to low standards, as team members won’t bring up counterproductive behavior.
  5. Inattention to results is often caused by the prioritization of personal status or ego above the good of the team.

Understand your team’s dysfunctions or weaknesses. Then you can craft the strategies to build trust, embrace healthy conflict, build group commitment, hold each other accountable, and pay attention to results.

3. Relinquish the Driver’s Seat

You can’t always have your most experienced, wisest team member solving each problem. They need to be able to step away from some daily details and focus on the most challenging work or longer-term management strategy.

This also means letting go of perfection. Some junior members may struggle or even fail at times. But it will also build crucial skillsets in each team member, and allow the most capable to step away from some daily details to focus on longer-term management strategy.

With my own teams, I use a driving analogy. When you ride as a passenger to a house where you’ve never been, you rarely remember how to get there. But when you’re the driver, the location is more deeply inscribed in your memory — even if it means you took a wrong turn or two on the way.

As Twitter-founder Biz Stone said: “When you hand good people possibility, they do great things.”

4. Give Each Other Quiet Time

A single mosquito can hold 3 milligrams of blood. That’s only 3 millionths of a liter.

A caribou is a huge, powerful animal weighing 500 pounds. While other large arctic mammals like the woolly mammoth succumbed to climate change and early hunters, the caribou survived and thrived.

But every year, when the tiny mosquitoes swarm en masse, they can kill grown caribou. They distract them from grazing and force them to run to colder areas without food. And they can drain a young caribou outright.

Interruptions are the mosquito swarms of the legal industry. It doesn’t matter that they are small and your legal team is powerful. They can sap your lifeblood and demolish your serenity.

Some researchers found that interruptions — and the time needed to get back into the groove afterward — wastes 40-60% of the workday. That’s upwards of six hours a day just putting out the fires of interruptions.

It’s so deeply ingrained in our notion of work that even when we have a quiet moment we’re susceptible to self-interruptions. Instead of focusing on our work, we check our phones, email, or click through our social sites.

Paradoxically, the best first step in building a great team isn’t about improving interactions. It’s about avoiding a certain kind of interaction. Create an anti-interruption culture by allowing your team members blocks of time free from interruptions. Move non-urgent conversations into the case management system instead.

And show the same respect to yourself. Schedule times when you turn off notifications and close your apps and wean yourself off the addition of self-distraction.


 

Building a powerful team takes work. But once there it immediately feeds your personal strength and capacity. It creates a positive feedback loop.

As basketball coach Phil Jackson said: “the strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

Through personal efforts to build a functioning team, you can build a legal group that sustains and empowers your personal practice in return.