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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Why lawyers act like 7 year old's

Last Saturday I spend some time standing at the side of an amateur football field watching young children play. It was a joy to watch as all the players were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and clearly enjoyed every minute of the game. What struck me after a while was that 7 year old’s do not play as a team. They clutter together. All of them (excluding the keeper) chasing the ball and wanting to make that goal. Once one has possession of the ball he will try to keep is as long as possible rather than passing to a team mate who might be better positioned to continue the attack. Apparently at the age of 7 children have no concept of teamwork.

With age, boys (or girls for that matter) get rapidly better at team play as it comes to football. When later that same Saturday the 14-15 year old’s were playing, teamwork had considerably improved to a useful level.

Surprisingly as it comes to the professional work space, teamwork can remain a colossal struggle even at an adult age. In many organizations adults cooperating in a team behave much like 7 year old’s on a football field. There is no clarity when it comes to everyone’s position and role and responsibilities within the team. Team members clutter together covering only a small part of the field and when it comes to it every individual wants to be the one that scores the goal. In a way team members are competing against each other as much as against the other team.

The same holds true to partners at a law firm. If there is any collaboration to start with, teamwork very much remains at the level of 7 year old’s. All running after the same ball. All wanting to score that goal.

Last week’s blog on collaboration unexpectedly gained a lot of traction and response. Collaboration seems to touch upon a bare nerve. Many law firms have started to realize that hammering on individual performance and contribution is reaching a dead end. Still individual performance remains so deeply ingrained in the structure of lawyers and law firms, that it might take an extraordinary effort to change.

The pressure to measure partner performance At TGO Consulting we advise law firms on partner remuneration and partner performance metrics on a regular basis. Between our clients we have come across all conceivable forms of profit distribution, ranging from rigid full lock-step to some the most extreme forms of ‘eat-what-you-kill’. We have clients that employ origination credits and we have clients that don’t.

What we see is that collaboration (let alone teamwork) is always difficult, regardless the systems used. Obviously in eat-what-you-kill a partner will directly benefit from not sharing the client. A reward for origination does not change that, as origination does not reflect the lifetime value of the client nor the effort needed to keep the client over time.

One would expect that pure lock-step would stimulate partners to cooperate since every partner will benefit from a rise in revenue or profit. Reality is that the majority of lock-step firms have a significant spread in revenue per partner and this invariably leads to a strong pressure to kick weak partner out of the firm. As a consequence partners still will want to have as much revenue put in their name as possible. No encouragement for collaboration.

A matter of trust When we work with law firms we always try to establish the level of trust between the partners. Not in the sense if they would trust their fellow partners with their wallet. We ask whether they would trust each of the other partners to work with their clients. Most of the time the answer to this question ranges between “it depends” and an outright “no”. Shockingly as it might be, many partners do not fully trust the legal knowledge, judgement or personal skills of most of their fellow partners. It goes without saying that this creates another huge hurdle for collaboration.

I will elaborate on ‘trust’ in one of my future blogs. Lack of trust is not only limited to fellow partners. Too often we come across partners that complain about the quality of the associates. These partners feel that the associates are not up to their task and start doing most of the work themselves. Partners making a huge number of hours while at the same time the associates are sitting idle is always a bad sign. Not only from a profitability perspective, but also from a teamwork perspective.

Missed opportunity to grow revenue Based on the analysis of the financial data of all our clients throughout the world we can clearly see that matters on which more that one practice group have collaborated are in general more profitable than matters handled by one partner (and his/her team) alone. The same holds true for clients. Clients that are served by multiple practice areas in an integrated manner are more profitable than those that deal only with one practice area or deal with two or more practice areas in a non-integrated manner (e.g. the IP department dealing with IP lawyers and HR dealing with employment lawyers).

Come to think of it, these findings are not that surprising. Clients are facing a world that is increasingly complex and volatile. Clients need lawyers that can collaborate to solve their problems. Many law firms state on their website that they want to be the trusted adviser to their client. It is hard to figure how a law firm can be a trusted adviser without offering teamwork. Law firms that are in dialogue with their client on how to add value through collaboration are winning more loyal clients and greater profits.

By failing to collaborate, law firms are leaving money on the table. Personal financial rewards have been the main driver for partners not to collaborate. The same financial reward might be the driver to start cooperating and deliver more value to the client. It is about time that partners stop behaving like 7 year old’s…


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