When I started practicing law, I worked with a number of partners at the same time. It was an unwritten rule that you didn’t talk with Partner A about the case you were handling with Partner B. Partner A never spoke with Partner B about her cases either, even when it was clear Partner B had some experience that would make Partner A’s life better. It was the anti-collaboration era.
Lawyers, as it turns out, are not natural collaborators. They don’t teach you how to collaborate in law school, nor do they don’t teach in ways that foster collaboration. When you close your eyes and think of a law student studying, almost everyone sees a solitary figure. Maybe things are changing in this area, but most lawyers today are products of the old system.
To this day, few firms—and certainly fewer large ones—promote collaboration. The billable hour system, compensation and advancement systems and firm power structures all discourage collaboration.
By this point, some are thinking (to themselves): “Yeah, so what?” And I just read an article in Entrepreneur magazine that begins with a sentence that reinforces the perception that collaboration doesn’t mean much: “To collaborate with another person is to admit weakness.” And so it is.
The inherent weakness of humans may date to Adam and Eve, at least according to the Bible, but the fact that we are all imperfect is a truth beyond debate. And as the world grows in complexity and more lawyers become more specialized just as the substance of law explodes like the universe after the big bang, admitting a need for help is not only a good thing, it is essential.
We fall in love with our own ideas. Sometimes the ideas that enamor us are bad ones. Collaborators help each other by opening our eyes to our bad ideas and helping us fall out of love. Collaborators help make good ideas great ones, or bring a yin to a yang. Having someone you effectively collaborate with is more essential than ever before. Clients should be asking about it, and managing partners should be talking with their colleagues to find out who can help them in that role.
I had occasion to come up with a list of great collaborators of the past. It was a fun task. Here are a few examples:
• Jobs (Steve) and Ive (Jonathan)
• Rodgers and Hammerstein
• Simon and Garfunkel
• Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger
• Hewlett and Packard
• Ben and Jerry (Tom and Jerry, too)
• Paul Newman and Robert Redford (or Butch and Sundance if you prefer)
• Larry Page and Sergey Brin
• Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (because I am a Chicagoan)
Who would you add?
Let me close with one thought on one really important aspect of collaboration: Done right, it rewards the we, not either individual. In a truly effective collaboration, you know (and recognize) that you produce better work together than separately, and you celebrate that accomplishment together.
Please share examples of effective collaborations in your comments.
Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group, a litigation firm representing business interests. Valorem helps clients solve their business disputes and coping with pressures to reduce legal spend using nontraditional approaches, including use of nonhourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint-venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.
Pat is the author of the the recently published book Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market. He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.