The research is in: collaboration gives legal teams higher average annual revenue per client, keeps clients more loyal for longer, and reduces professional turnover.1
But collaboration still needs to be discovered in many firms. Researchers suggest this could have something to do with an occupational culture that prizes self-protection over trust, skepticism over faith in others, and autonomy over teamwork.
But those firms that can successfully deploy collaborative workflows will outperform their competitors. To begin reaping the benefits of teamwork, take these 9 steps:
1. Get help from case management legal software
Collaboration is a profoundly human act. But we humans have always relied on tools to make it easier.
The best way to encourage collaboration is to make it frictionless. Legal software can do this in several ways. One of the biggest is its ability to centralize your information. Information silos are a significant obstacle to teamwork. Some people are talking in their office, a few others are emailing each other, and someone else sends a text. Everyone's either reaching different conclusions or repeating themselves. The next steps get lost in a haze of confusion. Cloud-based case management software helps you ensure that the right people have their eyes on the correct information at the right time.
In addition to showing you what everyone is doing, case management legal software for attorneys aren't doing — helping you see if deadlines are being pushed or cases are stagnating. The greatest fear of collaborating is that someone will drop the ball. A case management system makes it easy to monitor and fix problems early.
2. Build a culture of trust
The greatest obstacle to collaboration is a need for more trust. After all, one mistake by your colleague can greatly damage your relationship with a client — a relationship you have been nurturing for years.
As a report from the global legal network ALFA International put it, collaboration requires two forms of trust:
- You must trust that your team members are professionally competent. They should be able to do their work well and quickly.
- You need to trust your team’s integrity. For instance, you shouldn’t have to worry that someone will ‘poach’ clients from someone else.2
Of course, some of this comes down to hiring — if a team member lacks the necessary skills or a moral backbone, you shouldn’t trust them. But when that’s not the case, going out on a limb to trust others can create a ‘virtuous cycle,’ where each person rises to the challenge and becomes more trustworthy over time.
One way to begin showing trust immediately is to stop micromanaging and empower others to complete the work on their own terms. It can also help to have case management software that gives you early warnings when work is falling behind.
3. Strategically deploy meetings
One requirement for strengthening trust is knowing how and when to use meetings. Meetings can be costly — they take time, require facilitation skills, and interrupt everyone’s workflow. Overdo them and you erode worker patience. But use them strategically, and meetings become the crucial infrastructure supporting law firm collaboration.
In particular, make sure you have kick-off meetings for new teams and projects, where everyone’s roles and responsibilities are defined. Remember that when something is “everyone’s” responsibility, it won’t get done — each part needs to have a clear bottom liner. Set out how and where each person will communicate updates going forward, and watch for moments when you might need to pull the group together for another face-to-face meeting.
4. Find alternatives to email
Email can seem like a great communication tool for collaborating teams. It’s easy, ubiquitous, and allows you to send a message without knocking on the door and interrupting someone’s work flow. But in practice, email is often a source of distractions, overwhelm, and security risks
Anyone with your email address can get in your inbox. That means your latest case updates will be jumbled in with weird forwards from your QAnon cousin and the latest deals from Amazon. Before long, much of your work just becomes sifting through email.
And as inboxes grow, important information slips through. You just miss that crucial message from your colleague, and it never makes it into your files because it’s siloed in your private inbox.
It’s that same overwhelm that makes email such a tempting channel for wrong-doers. Because you have to sift through incoming information so rapidly, you don’t always check carefully before clicking on that urgent link from your “HR department” — and before you know it, you’ve downloaded malware onto your computer.
Instead of email, consider more secure forms of communication to keep your team in sync. By adding notes and updates to your case management system, you can ensure all relevant roles have easy access while maintaining a complete archive and protecting your client confidentiality.
5. Avoid interruptions
Some worry that collaborating will just mean an endless stream of colleagues coming through the office to provide or ask for the latest updates. It’s crucial that each team sets out ways to collaborate that avoid interruptions.
Set expectations for updates, so each person knows when something is urgent enough to warrant an interruption. Utilize communication tools like project management software for lawyers to provide non-intrusive updates while simultaneously maintaining a full archive of activities. Regular meetings can also be important, to give each person a chance to ask and answer questions all at once.
6. Clarify purpose of collaboration
“Relationship building is not billable,” noted the authors of an ALFA International report on law firm collaboration.3 In a culture that often promotes individualism (and even rivalry), it can take some work to convince legal teams to invest energy in collaboration.
Some of this might be done through sharing the research. That same report shows that collaboration increases firm revenue and increases client retention. It also directly benefits the professionals who engage it in, giving them more in-bound work and a greater book of business. Collaboration also increases retention of legal professionals in the firm, indicating that it improves workplace satisfaction.
7. Build respect for different knowledge sets
Some law firms can have a hierarchical mindset, where those at the top are considered more skilled in all ways than those at the bottom. But a better framework for improving collaboration is one where each member is respected for the unique skills and knowledge they can bring.
Diverse practice areas and specific niches of expertise are crucial for improving collaborative legal work. So are differences in cultural knowledge, coming from diverse classes, races, ethnicities, languages, genders, and ages. Rather than trying to mold each team member into a replica of the senior partners, collaborative law firms should celebrate and build off of these differences. This will not only help your team to serve a broad clientele better, it will also engender confidence in more junior team members.
8. Train on collaboration
‘Soft skills’ are often treated as unlearnable: either you’re born with them or you're not. But it’s encouraging that top law firms are increasingly providing training programs for teamwork, emotional intelligence, and communication.
Firms like Debevoise and Weil are pushing soft skill training, while PricewaterhouseCoopers recently augmented their own training with virtual reality.
Technical training is also required for good collaboration. Make sure each person is educated about how to appropriately use the project management and communication software and apps you use, so team efforts can move forward smoothly.
9. Get the right tech for remote collaboration
Collaboration isn’t limited to the offices — many firms are successfully building and managing legal teams through remote work across various locations. But you need to invest in the right technology.
Of course case management software is a large piece of this. Also, consider the teleconferencing technology you’re using. Have you taken the time to learn how to facilitate remote and hybrid meetings? Do you know about the different tools you can use to keep them secure and accessible? Do your team members need an upgrade in the cameras and microphones they use to make meetings more pleasant?
You also want to build expectations around communication for remote workers, including how and when to use email or workplace messaging platforms like Microsoft Teams or Slack.
Keep in mind that remote collaboration tools aren’t just for firms that have gone fully remote. Even when nearly all your work happens in the office, there will be emergencies that keep colleagues at home or on the road. Make sure your collaboration isn’t dependent on physical presence, so you can face these crises as they come.
The future of legal work belongs to those who can collaborate. Make sure your team is prepared with these 9 steps.