Law is a Team Sport in the Digital Age
By Mark A. Cohen
This article was originally published on Forbes.com and is reposted here with permission from Mark Cohen.
“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” - Andrew Carnegie
The legal profession’s “lawyer and non-lawyer’” mindset is alive, if not well. A recent Bloomberg Law article reported 82% of lawyers surveyed believe multidisciplinary teams can consist solely of licensed attorneys; different practice areas, seniority levels, and firms are a “multidisciplinary” team in their view. The data emanates from Bloomberg Law’s 2021 Legal Operations Survey of 429 law firm and in-house attorneys at various career stages.
The significance of the 82% extends far beyond lawyers’ semantic misunderstanding of “multidisciplinary.” It evidences the profession’s insular, lawyer-centric culture at a time when its business clients are digitally transforming. A lawyer-centric mindset is inimical to the seamless, multidisciplinary, cross-functional collaboration required to satisfy the needs of digitally mature legal buyers. That requires teamwork within the legal function and beyond.
“Multidisciplinary” teams comprised solely of licensed attorneys cannot deliver legal services and products effectively and cross-functionally in the digital age. It takes a broader team comprised of lawyers, allied professionals, and paraprofessionals. The legal function must also work cross-functionally to assist other customer business units to solve complex business challenges or to seize corporate opportunities.
To serve digital customers competently, efficiently, and successfully, the legal function must deliver more than lawyers and legal work. It must expand its ranks to business, technology, data, and other specialists, working seamlessly to advance customer objectives. It must function as a team, not as a collection of individuals whose central goal is individual input. Teams have a common goal and work collectively to achieve it. That is the measure of success. This is not how lawyers are trained, but going forward it must be.
Law can learn about teamwork from its customers
Law’s customers are reassessing and reconfiguring all facets of their businesses—the legal function included— to better serve customers and enhance their end-to-end experience. This is manifest in corporate investment in technology, processes, and people.
Digital business requires a workforce that is tech-enabled, data-driven, agile, collaborative, customer-focused, multidisciplinary, cross-functional, diverse, up-skilled and integrated. Its functions and roles are continually reassessed to extract innovation that drives customer impact, efficiency, and accessibility. Traditional departmental silos are being replaced by fluid, nimble ones capable of producing more holistic, data-backed, innovative solutions to internal operational as well as customer challenges. This requires teamwork.
Digitally mature organizations operate as an enterprise-wide team whose purpose, functions, and roles are widely understood. They are designed to create a symbiotic dynamic within the enterprise and with its customers. The legal function—and that includes corporate departments, firms, new model providers, etc.—is not exempt from this process. Its ability to contribute is contingent upon its adaptation to the team concept. Law can look to its customers for guidance.
Business teamwork has multiple layers linked by a common goal. It requires collaboration and seamless integration internally, with strategic partners, the supply chain, customers, and society. Digital transformation requires a collective mindset for individuals, working groups, business units, and senior management. Digitally mature organization have fluid workforces whose skillsets, experience, and experience can be quickly assembled to solve complex, time-sensitive business challenges. They are often comprised of talent from different business units, organizations, disciplines, geographies, generations, etc. When these ad hoc teams collaborate, they must “play together” and function as a seamless, interdependent team. This is business teamwork in the digital age.
Lawyers—and the broader legal function—must adopt a team approach. Applying principles of digital teamwork to legal delivery will require a cultural reboot throughout the legal ecosystem—education, training, product and service providers, regulators, and courts. This is not like flipping on a light switch; it will be a painful, incremental, and herd-thinning exercise. It is an existential change, not an elective one.
Law has always been about lawyers, not customers, and the individual lawyer, not the team. Consider, for example, territorial practice rules designed to protect local lawyers from outside competition even if end-users would benefit. Legal metrics, such as they exist, focus on individual input—hours billed, realization, and origination and profit-per-partner (PPP), not net promoter score/customer satisfaction. The legal ecosystem is designed to nurture, advance, and protect the rights of the individual lawyer, not to foster collaboration and multidisciplinary teamwork that benefits customers.
The profession’s collaborative myopia undermines its efficacy and negatively impacts legal consumers and society. It contributes to law’s growing misalignment with customers and low net promoter scores, limits accessibility to legal services, erodes the rule of law, and marginalizes the legal function’s impact within the enterprise. Law’s adoption of teamwork will ameliorate these deficits.
To drive customer value, law must be a team sport, not a blood sport
The zero-sum indoctrination of lawyers can be traced to the widespread misconception that they are pugilists, not mediators. Law schools and many legal providers, especially traditional partnership model law firms, focus on the individual, not the team. This is inimical to the development of a team mindset. The insularity of the legal profession compounds the problem. Many lawyers function in a lawyer-centric environment removed not only from the business of law but also from other professionals and customers. This calcifies the “lawyer and ‘non-lawyer’” mindset and explains the results of the Bloomberg survey.
Teamwork is advanced when the collective goal is clearly articulated and the individual understands how her/his goal fits into the larger effort. This understanding also instills a sense of purpose, something sorely lacking among many lawyers. An absence of purpose, as a recent McKinsey study revealed, produces disaffection, undermines job performance, and adversely impacts customers. The lack of purpose shared by many lawyers can be linked to the profession’s sky-high rates of chemical dependency, alcoholism, suicide, divorce, and mental illness. Law’s low net promoter score and misalignment with customers can also be tied to a widespread lack of purpose.
Law’s absence of teamwork is the byproduct of its homogeneity, insularity, and self-regulation. Diversity—socio-economic, ethnic, gender, cognitive, generational, organizational and cognitive— has long been viewed as a threat, not an asset. Perpetuation of the status quo, not innovation, has been the profession’s focus. The proliferation of legal awards, law’s version of “every kid gets a trophy,” and its plethora of self-proclaimed “disruptors,” “visionaries,” and “innovators” may satisfy lawyers, but less so its customers. The profession must look beyond itself. Teamwork is a good place to start.
What does legal teamwork look like?
There is no one-size-fits all legal teamwork checklist. Here are some suggestions.
- Lawyers should consider their function from the customer perspective, not the legal one.
- Customers want the legal function to be proactive problem solvers, not reactive “what if?” identifiers. Lawyers must team with allied professionals involved with corporate risk management—data analysts, engineers, technologists, process and design experts, etc.
- The practice of law and the business of delivering legal services are co-equal parts of the legal function. Teamwork between the two is essential and the foundation for impactful collaboration with other corporate functions that advances end-user objectives.
- Lawyers and other legal service providers should ask themselves several questions: Why are they here? What do they do? What should they do to better serve existing customers as well as those in need of their services?
- The legal function is much more than a collection of lawyers whose remit and role is performing what they identify as “ legal work.” Law is part of a far-broader, diverse team that works proactively and collaboratively for the benefit of its customers. This is the legal role, and it cannot be discharged absent participation with the broader team.
- The artificial distinctions lawyers draw between in-house, law firm, or other legal service providers are meaningless to end-users. Customers want accessible, fast, holistic, data-backed solutions that solve problems and convert opportunities.
- Law’s idiosyncratic language does not distinguish lawyers in a positive way. “Legalese” impedes lawyer impedes communication with the broader corporate team, and this is detrimental for customers. Lawyers should adapt their language to the lingua franca of business and society.
- Data is the fuel that business runs on. The legal function must run on it, too. Data sharing within the legal function as well as with the wider enterprise data lake is an important element of legal teamwork.
- Technology is the backbone that enables diverse, geographically dispersed organizations to work seamlessly to drive value, transparency, and a positive end-to-end customer experience. Teamwork involving individuals, business units, functions, and customers is required to harness technology’s transformative potential.
- Cultural adaptation, teamwork, change management, up-skilling, cultural awareness, collaboration, and customer-centricity are critically important elements of meeting legal consumer needs and objectives. Lawyers must be a part of this process.
- Law must collaborate with a cognitively diverse team of technologists, engineers, data analysts, financial, risk management, change management, design, process, customer-experience, and other experts to meet the needs of its digital customers. This applies within the legal function and beyond.
- The legal function in the digital age has many career paths for lawyers that combine legal knowledge with other skills, experiences, emotional intelligence, inquisitive minds, lifelong learning, and passion. Many lawyers and legal professionals engaged in teamwork before they embarked on legal careers. They should draw from that experience in their professional careers and share it with others.
Business in the digital age is complex, dynamic, and competitive. Its leadership relies on holistic, data-backed, team-driven recommendations to make business decisions. That requires the seamless integration of diverse teams. This is teamwork, and the legal function must be a part of it.
If “Teamwork makes the dream work,” then the legal function must be part of the team, not a drag on the dream.
Mark A. Cohen
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