Using their experience of Diploma students working on virtual transactions, the authors identify different styles of working and assess their strengths and weaknesses

Most managing partners are aware of the increasing importance of encouraging people to share information and work together to provide clients with a high level of service. Whether the “team” involves legally qualified, paralegals, estate agency staff and/or financial services advisers, everyone involved has to be able to support each other so that the client receives a consistent quality service. However, in practice this is not always easy to achieve, with some professionals resistant to any attempt to “join a team”.

This article offers help to managing partners by looking at one type of teamworking that provides concrete examples of the characteristics that make professional teams successful.

Virtual model

In the Diploma in Legal Practice at Glasgow Graduate School of Law, students are asked to work in “virtual” law firms on client transactions in assigned teams. These transactions include a reparation matter, house purchase and sale, civil court action, and private client executry. Each firm has its own identity, website and intranet – their online working environment. Students are selected at random for each firm and have to find a way to work together quickly and effectively as their performance on these client projects is assessed as a team. IT is an important element of their resource base and this, coupled with the practical nature of the legal work they are asked to do, allows them to simulate practice as much as possible in an academic setting.

On completion of these projects, each student is asked to focus on two of the transactions, and write a report that reflects on:

  • the most difficult questions they had to address in each, and how they addressed them;
  • the pattern of work that they adopted within the firm, and the strengths and weaknesses of their approach;
  • what they would do differently next time and why; and
  • what they have learned as regards risk management, case and file workload and client care.

We examined these reflective reports over a period of three years to identify not only the firms that worked well together and those that did not, but also the characteristics of successful firms and those that were less successful. This led us to identify four different types of firms:

  • Type 1 – Learning communities
  • Type 2 – Legal eagles
  • Type 3 – Friendly societies
  • Type 4 – Dysfunctional

What did these firms look like?

From the perspective of managing a law firm, or indeed working in in-house situations, these four types of firms will be familiar to most of us.

Learning communities: high trust, high learning

First of all there were the firms we called “learning communities”. These experienced high trust and high learning. Their culture was inclusive and fair. They were willing to rely on each other, putting the aims of their team first rather than any personal agenda or gain. When differences were aired, they looked for a win-win result. They were task focused, with a strong commitment to getting the job done. They operated in an open and honest way, respecting each other’s strengths and supporting weaknesses, sharing responsibility for mistakes and problems. They learned from mistakes, sought consensus at all times and as a result, were responsive and resilient.

Legal eagles: low trust, high learning

We are certain many of us who have experience of working in practice will readily recognise the type 2 firm. The “legal eagles” focused on their individual identity rather than that of the firm. They argued with each other over details, preferring to tackle projects their way rather than accommodate other people’s approaches. As a result, they spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy on arguing rather than doing. Their relationships were abrasive and argumentative with limited listening. They were inflexible and suspicious of anything new. They sought to score points off each other rather than seek to move forward. Whilst they successfully got the job done, the process exhausted everyone.

Friendly societies: high trust, low learning

The third type also exists in practice, perhaps more often in small firms than large. Their culture was inclusive and secure. They were like-minded and sociable, spending companionable time together at the expense of getting on with their tasks. As a result, their approach was superficial and comfortable, avoiding any conflict or disagreement.

Dysfunctional: low trust, low learning

Hopefully, this type of firm is rarely seen in practice. This group operated a culture of suspicion and blame, seeking their own agenda at all times with little recognition of the need to work as firm. Their intra-firm relationships were abrasive and self-seeking, with no awareness of the impact of their behaviour on colleagues. When mistakes occurred, they sought to polarise discussion and blame others. They were demanding, egocentred and inflexible.

The characteristics of the four types are summarised in the chart.

Lessons for practice

Professionals are not easy to manage as, traditionally, they have been trained to be independent in their approach to client work. Requiring them to work in teams can be fraught with difficulties as people jockey for position, all of them wanting to be leaders rather than “followers”. The characteristics that we have identified allow managing partners to see what they need to be able to develop, either formally through specific HR process or informally through the firm’s culture and behaviours.

For example, if commitment to a team goal is essential, teams should be rewarded across the board by successful team task achievements. If mutual support and sharing are important, partners and associates should be recognised for their development of younger professionals.

Developing successful teamworking is an important part of the success of any professional service firm, not least as it allows work to be carried out by the correct people at the appropriate level and so improves leverage and profitability. To achieve this, people must be able to work together in a way that allows individuals to recognise that this is a better way of working.

To be successful in practice today, lawyers require the ability to recognise and share their skills and expertise, to ensure that their clients receive high quality professional services that are consistently delivered across the firm. As a result, they need to work collaboratively with people, building trust and mutual support and understanding.

The characteristics that we have identified of our successful firms, our “learning communities”, point to a way that allows people to work together more effectively in that way.

Karen Barton is a senior lecturer in legal practice, Glasgow Graduate School of Law. Fiona Westwood of Westwood Associates has worked closely with Karen on the Diploma in Legal Practice course

Please see the printed magazine or downloadable PDF for “Figure 1: the Learning/Trust Matrix”

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