The Importance of Collaboration

Heidi Gardner

Today’s law firms face a paradox: they attract more loyal and profitable clients when partners break through internal silos to provide cross-practice, cross-border service, but the individual partners often ask, “What’s in it for me?” Even for those who value the camaraderie of collaboration, the commercial pressures in many firms leads them to take decisions that prioritize short-term, more certain gains over long-term more speculative returns from collaborative work. Our research at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession takes an empirical approach, guided by social science, to examining this problem. The research uncovers some of the barriers to collaboration among law firm partners, quantifies the potential upside, and proposes some practical ways to move forward.

By analyzing millions of timesheet, personnel and financial records from multiple firms over a decade, we can show that the more practice groups that are involved in serving a client, the higher the revenues. Similarly, client projects involving offices in several countries are significantly more lucrative than single-office engagements. These rewards flow to the firm, as expected, but we demonstrate how – and how much – individual lawyers benefit from teaming up to serve clients. For example, average partners in my study got a new client referral within a year from one in every six colleagues they teamed up with, and such referrals were each worth about $50,000 more realized revenue.

“…The more practice groups that are involved in serving a client,
the higher the revenues.”

We show that working collaboratively affects partners’ reputations not only with colleagues but also with clients, as evidenced by the higher rate increases for partners who work collaboratively. Across law firms, we find that the more cross-discipline projects partners worked on, and the more complex each one was, the more partners can charge for their work in subsequent years. These effects play out for rainmakers, too: The more colleagues in other practices that a partner involves in client work she originates, the more the rainmaker’s book of business grows in subsequent years from both their existing clients and from new clients. Results of this study were recently published in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2015/03/when-senior-managers-wont-collaborate, and I will publish a book on this theme with Harvard Business Press next year. To discuss this topic and to learn more about my book, visit professionalcollaborations.wordpress.com.

We use the research about collaboration to inform our executive education teaching in multiple ways. For the most senior lawyers in our Leadership in Law Firms course, we focus on the strategic, structural, and cultural shifts that they can make to develop a more collaborative partnership in their firm. Informed by our interviews with General Counsel, as well as by best practices we’ve researched in other professional sectors, we help senior leaders understand the most productive changes they should consider, and we offer practical advice for how to lead and manage that transition.4756760521_c9b43eb49c_m

For equity partners in the Accelerated Leadership Program, class discussion helps resolve some of the tension they face in juggling competing demands for individual achievement (booking revenues, generating business, establishing a market reputation) with collaborative efforts.   We explore this dilemma through case studies and discussions of the approaches that partners can use to increase the relative benefits of collaboration and lower the perceived costs and risks. Further, our survey research involving hundreds of law partners across many firms reveals that one of the most frequently cited barriers to collaboration is that partners lack the capabilities and confidence to pursue cross-practice discussions with their clients. Classes that enhance partners’ client leadership skills address another of the underlying barriers to collaboration.

Finally, for our custom programs we tailor our teaching about collaboration to the specific audience. Senior associates, for instance, learn the power of building collaborative networks early in their careers to boost opportunities for greater client engagement and enhanced skills, and we discuss practical yet research-based ways to start collaborating effectively. Likewise, senior client team or practice group leaders learn how to harness the power of collaboration in their specific firm context, using principles based on solid research.