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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Competition or collaboration?

During one of my recent visits to China, I had a meeting with the leadership of the All China Lawyers Association (中华全国律师协会). While discussing various aspects of the professional development of the legal profession in China at some point we addressed the topic of collaboration between lawyers in a firm. It was then that one of the senior Chinese representatives asked me: “Mr. Bosman (潘言博), have you ever seen a cat catch a rat?” “Yes”, I answered, “as a child I have”. “Have you ever seen multiple cats catch a rat?”, he continued.

His story was meant to show that like cats lawyers are designed to operate as an individual and not as a team. The analogy with cats is widely popular in lawyer circles. David Maister wrote in his book on managing a professional services firm that "managing lawyers is like herding cats." He was describing how attorneys are often difficult to deal with, impossible to manage, and are terrible at working together for a common goal.

As to my Chinese host, I respectfully disagreed with his story of cats and rats. Sticking with Chinese symbolism, I asked him if he would agree that the lion is mightier than the cat and I pointed out that lions, unlike cats, do hunt in groups.

This article is however not about metaphors. As appealing as the liking of lawyers to cats might be, it is not true. Lawyers are quite dissimilar from cats and are, unlike the common house cat, not primed to operate solo. Notwithstanding this, in their day to day practice most lawyers work competitive rather than collaborative and this is probably not a smart thing.

Competitive environment The business of law is competitive by nature. From law school through partnership, everything is very much individualistic and competitive. Law students are not trained to collaborate, but to compete. Last week I had some meetings at Harvard Law School. Like at other Ivy League universities, only the most talented are admitted and only the very best find their way to the legal top jobs. Being successful as a law student is about being better than the rest. Lawyers are competitive from the onset.

When joining a law firm, each lawyer enters into a highly competitive race to partnership. Being a lawyer is about individual performance. It is about making more hours than the lawyer in the next room. This competitive spirit does not magically end once the lawyer becomes a partner. One could argue that being a partner is the non-plus-ultra as it comes to competitiveness.

As outlined in one of my earlier blogs, partners are most of the time encouraged to create revenue in their own name. Partners typically are highly possessive when it comes to their clients. Partners operate solo with a small team of trusted associates. Law firms are one of the rare forms of business where the individual is more important than the company. Even Goldman Sachs does not operate in that way.

“it's me and my nation against the world and me and my clan against the nation and me and my fam' against the clan.

Then me and my brother with no hesitation go against the fam' until they cave in.

Now who's left in this deadly equation."(NAS & Damian Marley, Distant relatives - 2010)

Towards a collaborative culture I would argue that both law firms and clients would benefit from a more collaborative culture. What if a client is not the client of an individual partner, but a client of the firm. I have written on this topic before. Clients would benefit because they would always have the best lawyer on the job depending on experience, expertise and availability. This even implies that the required skill could change during the course of a matter. Something that requires a business savvy negotiator in the start could require a patient technical lawyer later in the process.

Even default discussing the strategy in a particular matter between the partners could positively impact the results. Would you as a patient not prefer your doctor to discuss your case with his colleagues to obtain their insights and opinions? I would personally not put my life in the hands of a medic who does not consult his colleagues. Why then would this be different as it comes to lawyers?

Hunting in packs Today pretty much everything in the business of law is geared towards individual performance. I would recommend that we start encouraging teamwork and cooperation. Starting with our associates, collaboration should be rewarded. Young lawyers should be trained and incentivized to work in teams, divide the tasks and discuss different options to take the matter forward. In my opinion also clients could sometimes be actively involved in the team on a day to day basis.

Not only the associates, but also partners should be more open to teamwork. Sure, every team need a team leader. So in the end one partner will coordinate the team. This however does not imply that this partner carries out most of the work or has ‘ownership’ of the client. The whole purpose of teamwork is creating the best possible value to the client and help the firms as a whole to be successful. The individual should be subordinate to this higher purpose. Even in Formula-1 racing the driver needs to serve the team.

Good cooperation and teamwork between partners is also increasingly one of the key ingredients as it comes to successful business development. Orchestrated and aligned team efforts to attract a new client or a new high profile matter have proven to be more successful than disperse individual efforts. It literally pays off in cash for partners to hunt in packs. It is time for lawyers to shake off that cat stigma.


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