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A buzzword with edge – Macfarlanes head reviews the most hyped professional services book for years

Collaboration within a law firm is as self-evidently a good thing as motherhood and apple pie. But then you might think the case for global warming is pretty clear too. So, despite the wave of professional recognition Harvard Law School professor Heidi Gardner (pictured) has received for her work on team-working, her new book, Smart Collaboration, has the considerable challenge of getting lawyers past the outskirts of platitudinal praise and towards the town centre of actual working habits.

Gardner will please her lawyer readers by starting with the strength of the case for collaboration generally. And, to this law firm leader, the case stands up pretty well.

The book starts by asserting that increasingly complex client problems demand effective integration of advice from numerous specialists. It identifies the drive towards specialisation as one of the most conspicuous trends of recent years in the legal world. Intuitively this feels right. Clients need useable solutions to problems and these are rarely to be found in one practice area in a law firm. The go-to lawyer who can listen well to the client, harness the skills to be found across their firm and forge a solution that works across relevant dimensions is a valuable asset indeed.

The next assertion is of critical importance, and probably the one that will be most open to challenge and debate. Evidence is produced to show that client revenue generation is directly correlated to the number of practice areas with which a client works. Gardner’s extensive and impressive research is clear on this.

So, she concludes, ‘smart collaboration’ is a vital ingredient for success in the modern law firm. Indeed, she suggests that, in the fullness of time, being able to demonstrate good collaboration may just be a hygiene factor for a law firm. Every self-respecting client will simply expect it along with a functional IT system and coffee in the meeting rooms. By smart collaboration she means the type designed to meet a client need rather than the ‘would you like fries with that?’ cross-selling that appals most sophisticated clients.

The book moves most valuably (and possibly uniquely) onto the ‘how to’, which for most practitioners is the hard bit (and therefore most useful). How do you drive a spirit of co-operation through an organisation as culturally resistant to it as a large law firm? Each chapter of the book focuses on an aspect of collaboration and outlines what works – what can be done to foster it.

Gardner suggests that the right place to start is to convince people that it is in their interests to collaborate through giving them hard evidence that backs up the spiel. She puts forward the large volume of research that she has conducted as a tool for winning that internal argument. The challenges of convincing lawyers that both the firm and they individually will benefit financially are substantially covered over two chapters.

The arguments here range from the basic – fewer negligence claims – to the much more complex – a more robust practice capable of weathering economic cycles. Innovation and client loyalty are also features of effective collaboration that she explores.

The idea of collaboration as an important element of a culture that can be a magnet for attracting and retaining talent is one that will interest many law firm leaders. Using teamwork to engender productivity and loyalty, especially among the elusive and vital Millennials, is a compelling notion. The book also considers in detail the merits of lateral hiring and how a culture of collaboration can maximise the chances of a lateral partner successfully integrating into the practice.

Several chapters deal with the cast of characters who together make up a collaborative law firm. The solo specialist might find the whole idea a little too salesy. The committed collaborator will almost inevitably be frustrated by naysayers and find the speed of progress disappointing. B-player partners will need convincing that getting involved in collaborative exercises will not threaten management’s perception of their performance by reference to the metrics on which they are inevitably judged. Indeed, the management focus on the readily measurable may be one of the greatest obstacles to fostering the softer, more intangible elements of contribution in a law firm, of which collaboration is a good example.

But perhaps the most critical component of successfully spreading a culture of collaboration throughout a law firm is that leaders demonstrate collaboration themselves – that they lead by example. They also need to communicate the benefits of closer co-operation clearly and make sure the systems within the firm support it. One of the most obvious systems that must be correctly aligned is compensation. Gardner suggests leadership is key and that collaboration should be a high priority, if not a matter of urgency, for all law firm leaders today.

Chapter eight of the book sits slightly apart from much of the rest of it as it looks at the client attitude to collaboration. The research shows that clients appreciate it and are prepared to pay for it, at least as far as complex work is concerned. One thing they do not want to see is more faces than necessary on straightforward work. An interesting thought from Gardner’s research is that clients do not trust lawyers who pretend to know it all. As such, collaborating can make star lawyers look smarter in the eyes of a client because they bring in true specialists who make them look good, rather than themselves trying to be a credibility-defying Jack-of-all-trades. Clients most obviously appreciate the responsiveness, global reach and efficiency benefits of collaboration, Gardner’s work asserts.

Some of the ideas that the book puts forward are hardly rocket science. The book is, however, a welcome reminder of those ideas and a source of helpful pointers about how to tackle a variety of the practical challenges; how to get partners interested in understanding sufficiently deeply what goes on in other practice areas so they can understand what benefit those practice areas might offer the clients they deal with; how the partners with overall responsibility for the client relationship need to be supported; how to deal with collaboration in handling the work of important clients of the firm that pay lower rates either across the firm or for work in particular practice areas; the imperatives of consistent client service, quality and responsiveness, and using positive pressure on performance to deliver it.

Certain aspects of the subject might be worthy of further exploration. Collaboration within law firms is only part of the story. How to combine with other law firms, alternative service providers and other professionals to deliver something integrated to clients is increasingly key for many clients. If collaboration is an imperative for the profession, what is going to happen to teaching in law schools to make the lawyers of the future understand that it is important to be a team player and not always the brightest person in the room?

There are a few pages on the interaction between technology and collaboration. It seems clear that, as a practical matter, this is a very important aspect of the subject. In some quarters collaboration is seen as synonymous with lengthy internal meetings. Good use of technology can integrate collaboration with law firm systems in a compelling way. Smart collaboration must be efficiently delivered and, well, smart.

It would also be nice to see some further thinking about the relationship between collaboration and diversity. Are more diverse law firms also more collaborative?

Finally, many law firm leaders are seeing fatigue setting in among partners at the very mention of the word collaboration (or, for that matter, innovation). This is a shame, but partners know when they are being brainwashed or persuaded a little bit too hard. We need to move promptly through this phase and not let the negativity slow the progress.

So does the book achieve what it sets out to do? Yes, I believe it does. It is a valuable tool for law firm leaders and, while it may not provide the rocket fuel that will propel a law firm into the stratosphere of collaboration, it provides useful material to those of us who believe that steadier change is more sustainable and valuable. My strong suspicion is that becoming more institutionally adept at collaboration will soon be less a nice optional extra and more an essential ingredient to lawyering at the highest level.

Charles Martin is senior partner of Macfarlanes. Smart Collaboration is out now