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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Humans are not designed to work solo

On 21 October a new piece of academic research was published. It explains why human brains decreased in size approximately 3,000 years ago. The reduction in human brain size 3,000 years ago was unexpected. It is a surprising fact about humans today that our brains are smaller compared to the brains of our Pleistocene ancestors. Why our brains have reduced in size has always been a mystery for anthropologists.

Brains use up a lot of energy, and smaller brains use less energy. The externalization of knowledge in human societies, thus needing less energy to store a lot of information as individuals, may have favored a decrease in brain size. The new study suggests that this decrease was due to increased reliance on collective intelligence, the idea that a group of people is smarter than the smartest person in the group. These findings strongly support our mantra of using Swarm Intelligence in law firms.

Lawyers operate self-centered

Today law firms are still very much organized around individuals (partners), making even integrated law firms effectively barely more than a group of individuals sharing an office and some other resources. Although most law firms will probably argue that for their firm this is not the case, reality is that partners are competing with each other for matters, clients and resources. Furthermore within a law firm there are silos: the practice groups and offices. Each silo has its own resources being primarily the associates, secretaries and paralegals. No need explaining that this commonly leads to poor use of the physical and intellectual resources. It frequently is the root-cause of under-utilization of fee-earners, and thus has a direct negative impact on a firm’s bottom line.

This self-centered and silo-based organization model comes not only at the cost of sub-optimal profitability, it also under-utilizes the intellectual and creative capital of the firm. Today law firm clients are facing increasingly complex challenges that go well beyond the expertise of one individual practice area. Helping clients navigate these multidisciplinary issues will require not only breaking down the practice group silos to foster cooperation, but it will also require tapping into the collective intelligence, experience and creativity of the firm. We call this ‘swarm intelligence’. Only the firm collectively will be able to find answers and solutions, were no individual partner or lawyer can. Just like our ancestors 3000 years ago.

The world around us is getting more complex by the day.

Law firm clients are real-life companies and organizations that must work very hard on a daily basis to remain relevant in their market. Almost every industry is facing new challenges these days. The banking industry, which has been going steady for decades, is now facing negative interest rates, a much tighter regulatory framework and stiff competition from crypto currencies and new entrants into their market. The energy sector is seeing transformative challenges it has never seen before. The automotive sector is disrupted by electrification and supply chain issues, and so has every other private or public sector comparable challenges of their own. All this calls for strategic ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking. Just applying experience from the past doesn’t cut it.

Helping clients navigate these challenges and help lead the way to new market opportunities and new business models, requires skills and creativity that goes well beyond what any individual alone could achieve. General Counsel were first to recognize this need. On countless occasions GC’s have voiced their desire to get broader input from their outside counsel. This is not about handling individual mandates, but about exploring new ways forward, which is crucial for any company's future existence.

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. 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 will positively impact quality. 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 myself in the hands of a medic who does not consult his colleagues. Why then would this be different as it comes to lawyers?

Swarm Intelligence will unlock the full potential

The way in which law firms operate now is geared towards rewarding individual performance and individual responsibility. Today all but a few exceptions lack a structured exchange of knowledge, expertise, insights and innovative creativity. Partners have basically no tradition or incentive to truly collaborate and tap into the combined brains of all partners (and all others) in the firm.

It is not hard to see that a firm that would truly succeed in ‘melting the brains’ would become unbeatable. Just imagine how powerful all that combined knowledge, skills and brainpower would be. Now it turns out that humans are evolutionary primed to cooperate, one could argue that working solo goes against human nature. Humans, lawyers no exception, are really smarter together. We would advise our clients to securely embed collaboration and applying Swarm Intelligence across the firm. If incorporated properly and embraced wholeheartedly, it is guaranteed to contribute to your firm’s future growth and success. Both your partners and your clients will thank you for it.


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