Category: Law firm management

Client developmentClient relationshipsEmotional intelligenceInnovationLaw firm management

Unicorn lawyers

What is a “unicorn skill”? It’s a skill that reasonably performing professionals in the field do not have, which is why they are just…reasonable. They can still do their job but are not “A” players. A unicorn skill is thus rarely found, and those who have it stand out as…unicorns.

I learned about the term “unicorn skill” from this article (quoting John Maeda’s Design in Tech report) claiming that for software designers, the unicorn skill is not coding (as traditionally thought) but good writing. Coders who are also great writers are unicorns:

A core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios. … These are the skills of a writer — all kinds of writers, but particularly fiction, screenwriting, and technical writing.

(This segment of the article is quoted from blogger Susan Stuart.)

The unicorn idea connects to a larger meme within the design community about unicorn designers, who—according to http://www.uxunicorn.com —can be described as follows:

Mythical user experience designer with an advanced and adaptive skill range. Outstanding skills in graphic design, rapid prototyping, front end development, user testing, technical specifications, marketing and branding. It does not have an opinion, it has a process, and will harmonize with any environment.

Unicorn designers are basically “supernatural beings” that may or may not exist, but that hiring managers want. They combine the best of technical skills with the best of soft skills:

It’s important to be able to receive and give feedback and have the necessary soft skills to work efficiently with others. Fortunately, with the understanding and expertise of different skill sets, unicorns should be able to develop deep empathy for the people they are working with.

Obviously there is some skepticism here about whether such a designer exists, or could exist.

Unicorn lawyers?

If that’s a unicorn designer, then what’s a unicorn lawyer? It’s not that far off from the combination of advanced technical plus soft skills described above for designers and coders. Here’s a draft description, inspired by the above and tailored to the legal profession:

Mythical recent law grad with an advanced and adaptive legal skill set. Outstanding skills in client interviewing, case analysis, legal research and analysis, mediation, litigation, transaction, regulatory compliance, social justice, efficiency, people skills, client development, and pro bono. They do not have an opinion, they have a complete skill set, and will enhance the justice production and economic advantage of any firm or agency. They are also qualified to be a solo unicorn needing no further mentoring.

Skepticism about unicorns in design work reminded me of the skepticism within legal education: can a law school can really be expected to produce a practice-ready graduate immediately adaptable to literally any legal environment? Those who aspire to produce or to be unicorns embrace a perhaps radical faith in and dedication to their own professional development.

Assuming for the moment that producing / being a unicorn lawyer is a worthy quest, can we identify one single unicorn skill—a skill that is under-appreciated, not commonly found, and highly correlated with outstanding performance in the field?

After reading the claim that writing is the unicorn skill for designers, I posited on Twitter that legal writing might be the unicorn skill for lawyers:

That idea was instantaneously shot down, with multiple sources confirming that legal writing is necessary but not sufficient—at least not in law firms that need client business. Any skill that is expected as a baseline cannot be a unicorn skill. The skill identified as more unusual and more likely to be rewarded was rainmaking. And rainmaking can, of course, be defined in various degrees of formality:

Listening as the unicorn skill for lawyers?

Listening is not unrelated to client development and even “a**kissing.” So can we say effective listening might be a unicorn skill because it is not commonly practiced at the level of excellence and is highly correlated with overall excellence?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that in almost any lawyering that involves interpersonal interactions, listening should be practiced to at least an average level of competence. Lawyers have to listen to their clients to take the facts, and listen to their supervisors to take assignments, and listen to witnesses to take depositions and conduct witness examinations at trial.

But is listening commonly practiced at the level of excellence? That means picking up the wealth of verbal and nonverbal cues that intense listening can reveal. It means making people truly feel heard. It means hearing and processing what is not being said. It means recognizing the moment of opportunity to interrupt and show engagement, versus the moment to sit back in silence and let the speaker continue unabated. The judgment and skilled intuition needed for this type of listening is why it goes into good lawyering in a technical sense and good rainmaking in the social sense of being liked and trusted. Finding all these skills in one person (plus necessary but not sufficient skills like legal writing) makes for a great lawyer.

And—according to the hypothesis of listening as unicorn skill—you don’t see top lawyers who are not also really strong at listening. You might call it charisma, but listening is part of what these extra-effective professionals do so well, and that others don’t. They take in a lot of information efficiently in their conversations and remember it. When they repeat questions, it’s not because they missed something, but to see if the speaker answers differently or to refocus on a crucial area. They may follow up in writing with precision to pin down the recipients and preserve their “record” for later.

Even in settings not traditionally understood as emotionally charged, they help others feel heard, efficiently, because they subtly manage the conversation. That’s part of what makes for great rainmaking. They may gravitate toward and be promoted in jobs that reward personal networks and interpersonal skills, e.g. negotiation and business development. After interacting with a skilled listener, people may not identify listening as the exact reason they are impressed, but they walk away with a sense of confidence and trust, and a positive impression. Those without the same skills in listening are fine, average, reasonable, even very good—but not unicorns.

Although I’ve made the case for listening as a unicorn skill, I am genuinely interested in others’ opinions of what the unicorn skill for lawyers may be.

For example, Lucy Endel Bassli has gone in a completely different direction, arguing that a unicorn lawyer is someone who “likes process and seeks data.”

When we look across the profession, what skill is under-appreciated, not commonly performed at a high level, and signifying truly excellent performance in the field? Have you ever interacted with someone you consider to be a “unicorn lawyer”? If so, what led you to that conclusion?

Client developmentClient relationshipsin-house counselInnovationInterviews

Review: Katrina Lee’s The Legal Career

511sXW1U++L._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Katrina Lee’s new book on the business of law, The Legal Career: Knowing the Business, Thriving in Practice (West 2017), starts by exploring the design of a law-firm office. Lee points out that the law office can be seen as a microcosm of the legal industry: evolution, yes, but also persistent adherence to the old ways. Newer office designs place greater value on “flexibility, openness, and collaboration.” There is less of a differential between the size of junior associates’ office square footage and that of partners. Law libraries may look more like “a comfortable coffee shop,” or even (heaven forbid) be known as a “lounge-brary.” Less emphasis on space for physical books opens up more space for all employees. Despite these changes, some firms polish the walnut-grained panels the way things always have been.

The Legal Career goes on to chronicle law-firm billing conventions and salary structures, as well as the “precipitous” drop in solo practitioners’ salaries over the past 30 years, and a growing role for legal professionals who are not licensed attorneys. Lee cites research from Heidi Gardiner of Harvard that effective collaboration among law-firm offices and practices groups leads to increased revenue.

Lee now teaches at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; before that, she practiced law for 12 years including six as an associate and six as an equity partner. Her book brings together these two careers: it’s textbook for law-school courses in the business of law, with an admittedly heavy emphasis on civil practice. As Lee writes in her introduction, it is “law firm-centric.” It does include in-depth interviews with in-house counsel giving a helpful client’s perspective from within “the corporate law department.” Lee interviewed in-house counsel at a variety of companies ranging from Google to an Ohio-headquartered insurance company.

That is not to say The Legal Career is just a practical how-to manual for understanding the job market as it is and getting a job. That approach would simply replicate the current flaws and weaknesses of the legal industry; Lee’s book is more ambitious. For example, her interview with Dr. Silvia Hodges Silverstein delves into the Gender Billing study. Although female lawyers don’t work less than men and are not less productive, Dr. Silverstein’s study showed “clear” and “depressing” patterns: “[W]omen are assigned less strategic tasks, given more administrative work,” and “Male lawyers’ invoices were also less discounted than female lawyers’.”

The Legal Career explores other business problems and weaknesses such inefficiency and resistance to technological advances. Lee quotes D. Casey Flaherty: a client unhappy with a law firm’s advocacy or counsel should simply “get new lawyers.” But for complaints about the “content” and “production” of information as opposed to the underlying advocacy or counsel, a client may benefit from talking with their lawyer or law firm about better process and efficiency. In this regard, clients can drive change. Flaherty envisions the law firm as “long-term legal suppliers” and recommends more conversations between clients and lawyers to foster more efficient services for clients and more accurate, less discounted realization rates for firms.

Working efficiently raises the issue of incorporating project-management experts into the law-firm delivery model, and much broader involvement by professionals who are not licensed attorneys. Consistent with opinions of many in the law-firm innovation discussion, Lee questions the term “non-lawyer” as potentially “unproductive and unfriendly.” But what term should be used instead? And should lawyering be regulated differently to allow more “legal technicians” and the like? In this way, The Legal Career also takes on challenges with access to justice.

Near the end of The Legal Career, Lee explores the need for innovative legal education. Here again, the range of opinions offered is a strength of the book. One quote from William D. Henderson jumped out at me:

There’s a real opportunity here. Lawyers are always happy when they are solving their clients’ problems. It’s a great day when you solve your client’s problem. In this day and age, we’re going to solve a lot more problems better; that will bring a lot of psychic happiness to lawyering. The economic model for this is unclear, but it’ll sort itself out.

Lee doesn’t—and can’t—provide easy answers to such questions. She encourages creative discussion about the big issues facing lawyers, such as in a classroom setting. But a class on the business of law is not necessary to learn from this book. Anyone who reads The Legal Career will be challenged to reflect on their individual careers, the meaning and measurement of law-firm success, innovation in legal education and the legal industry, the role of lawyers in society, and the future of the profession.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Client developmentClient relationshipsCollaborationin-house counselLaw firm management

#InHouseTwitter

In-house counsel and anyone who works with them—such as, say, outside counsel—will be interested in the new hashtag, #InHouseTwitter, started this summer by @J_Dot_J. J.J.’s Twitter bio tells us she is an “employment/cyber-security lawyer, mom to a 2-boy wrecking crew, endorsed as ‘not half bad.'” She has shared some pithy—sometimes salty—advice from her in-house perspective and prompted an honest and growing discussion from other in-house counsel as well.

#InHouseTwitter is active at 4 p.m. Central on Thursdays. Follow the hashtag for announcements of upcoming topics. Most recently J.J. prompted a long thread on relationships with outside counsel:

The responses varied from the positive…

….to the negative

with many nuanced observations and anecdotes in between.

Emotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLeadership

Addiction

The most e-mailed story on the New York Times this morning is The Lawyer, the Addict.

The short version is that a Silicon Valley patent lawyer who had been #1 in his law-school class died on his bathroom floor from a drug-related infection. His ex-wife found him. She also found his phone, which indicated his last communication with anyone had been a conference call at work. That is the “heartbreaking” and “haunting” detail many are talking about, discussing the competitive workaholic winner-take-all culture of law school and BigLaw practice.

Another detail is equally haunting:

For the last two years of his life, every time Peter and I were together — whether it was back-to-school night, our son’s cross country meets or our daughter’s high school graduation — people would ask me if he was O.K. They asked if he had cancer, an eating disorder, a metabolic disorder, AIDS. But they never asked about drugs.

Neither friends, nor law-firm management, nor the lawyer’s own ex-wife could conceive that this man had, for years, been consuming through various means “Vicodin, Tramadol, Adderall, cocaine, Xanax, crystal meth and a kaleidoscope of pills.”

People just can’t believe that a professional so seemingly successful could be a serious drug addict. And even if they could believe it, there are other barriers pointed out by an ABA Lawyers Assistance official quoted in the article:

Law-firm leadership…doesn’t really know what signs to look for when it comes to addiction. And when it’s happening, she said, they are so busy themselves, “they just don’t see it.”

So everyone is reading this article and talking, talking, talking about it. To honor the work of this lawyer’s ex-wife in revealing these details and spending so much effort to bring this story forward, it’s crucial to change and improve the profession. As lawyer Kendall Burchard said on Twitter:

The question is, how to recognize signs and how to try to help. Listening is of course crucial. But someone, somewhere along the line, has to speak up in a way that is likely to help, or at least unlikely to prompt denial and more isolation and covering up. Please share comments on how to do that, here or on social media or really anywhere, with anyone in the legal profession. What the experts say about “how” will be a subject for another post.

Client developmentClient relationshipsCollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm management

Listening to punctuation

Thanks to Julie Schrager, counsel and legal writing coach at Schiff Hardin, for this guest post. 

schrager_julie_s_bw_bio_wide-1

I have been desperately trying to find a way to write about exclamation points. I grew up in a time when they were reserved for exclamations:

“Congratulations on winning that game!”

or

“That’s the reason he got that promotion!”

Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, calls those uses the “Yes!”  and “Ah!” meanings of exclamation points.

And I was taught—starting in high school, then in college, law school, and in my first 20+ years of legal practice—that exclamation points had no role in business communications. Nothing we wrote was considered exciting or emotional, and exclamation points were viewed as showing too much emotion.

My teachers were in good company in disliking the exclamation point.  Fiction writers for centuries had condemned the use of exclamation points in fiction-writing. Both Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald are credited with saying that using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.

But then I started sending and receiving texts. The old exclamation point rules didn’t apply there. And now I would say the rules—at least for certain legal correspondence—have changed.

This blog is about listening like a lawyer. Lawyers listen to things judges, clients, and other lawyers say out loud. But they also “listen” to writing:  opinions from judges, emails from opposing counsel and clients, and notes from colleagues. Some people read written communications out loud, but even if we don’t, we read and “hear” them in our head.

And I don’t “hear” exclamation points as exclamations anymore. I’ve started to listen to what I read from law students and new law grads and my college-age daughter. I’ve learned that exclamation points don’t say “Yes!” or “Ah!” anymore. Instead, they say, “I hear you” or “I’m not angry” or “We are in this together” or “Our relationship is on solid ground.”

Let me explain. My job involves regular email correspondence with associates at my law firm. It’s a unique position. I work as Schiff Hardin’s legal writing coach and read and comment on written work—memos, briefs, articles, web content, blog posts, and anything else summer associates or associates write. My interactions are almost exclusively with people under 35, and most are with people between 25 and 30. Sometimes associates reach out to me to ask me to review a piece of work—and sometimes I reach out to them.

This is how it goes: at the start of every week, I send around an email to all of the associates at the firm reminding them of my existence and asking if anyone would like to work together during the week. I ask them to fight against the idea that they should be able to figure out their jobs by themselves and do not need to ask anyone for help. I ask that they embrace a “growth mindset,” which holds that abilities are not fixed in space but can be developed with perseverance and hard work.

Exclamation points play an important role in our correspondence. They help young associates and summer associates win the fight against going it alone. Sometimes I’ll get a return email letting me know that the associate is writing a blog post and would like to send it my way. Often the email either starts with “Hi Julie!” or ends with “Thanks in advance!” The message is clear:  I am putting myself out there and am interested in working together.

Listening like a lawyer means matching the tone of the person speaking to you. So I respond with exclamation points of my own: “Thanks for reaching out!” or “Sounds good!” or “My pleasure!”

And I submit that the exclamation point has a new meaning and a legitimate role in business correspondence.

Client developmentClient relationshipsClinical legal educationCollaborationInterviews

Categories of listening

Katrina Lee from Ohio State tweeted earlier this week:

The article referred to in her tweet is by  Jim Lovelace, Director of Talent Development at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, and was published in the ABA Law Practice Today.

As Katrina said, it is a quick read. And it’s a pretty powerful read, too. The essential premise is that to be effective, a listener must move beyond “self-focused listening.” What does that mean?

In my 25 years of experience as a practicing lawyer and legal career development professional, I have observed that lawyers spend the vast majority of their work time—when they are not talking, that is—as self-focused listeners. When they hear others’ stories, their minds are occupied with: What are the flaws and where are the potential liabilities? Where is the “good stuff” on which I can build a case? They dig for facts, often asking for more information to construct their narratives and theories. This is not surprising. This is what lawyers have been taught, from law school onward, to do.

But there’s more to listening than this self-focused approach. Lovelace introduces empathic listening and comprehensive listening, two other categories of listening that may not be right for a contentious deposition but are very, very right for interpersonal situations at work. Lovelace uses a hypothetical in which a trusted senior associate blindsides the senior partner by announcing he’s leaving the firm. Different listening methods can affect not just the tone but the outcome of such conversations.

Lawyers love categories, and somebody this blog will have a pull-down menu listing the many categories of listening that communications experts have identified. When it comes to (1) self-focused listening, (2) empathetic listening, and (3) comprehensive listening, Lovelace’s article is an excellent introductory resource. It doesn’t take long to read, and it’s really good. Thanks for the tweet recommending the article, Katrina!

Law firm managementLegal communicationLegal technologyMediation

Listening and legal tech

I have followed Mike Whelan, Jr., on Twitter for a while now but only recently discovered his blog, Lawyer Forward. Mike is a Texas family lawyer and law-practice coach for lawyers who founded a CLE conference, also called Lawyer Forward. Whelan says his “ninja thing” is “teaching and cultivating relationships.” It’s therefore not surprising his blog has touched on both practical and personal aspects of listening, such as his appreciation for legal tech vendors who actually listen to lawyers speaking about their needs.

Mike’s most recent posts were inspired by social-media chatter about the Canadian legal tech conference, LexTech16. He wrote about it here and here. In his first post “It’s Not That We Hate Tech, It’s That We Hate Your Tech,” he  describes a simple method for deciding whether to spend on tech:

[T]ransactions happen under fairly simple dynamics: you give me something that I want more than the money in my pocket. If you don’t, there’s no sale.

Thinking about the payoff of legal tech brought up similar questions about the potential value to lawyers of time spent working on their listening. Also: does legal tech itself hold any promise for helping lawyers with listening and communication more broadly?

As far as the value of working on listening, I started writing this post with the idea of claiming there is no opportunity cost to better listening. There is no tradeoff! Effective listening should enhance any other choices a lawyer might make, whether the lawyer’s niche is in virtual drone lawyering with alternative fee arrangements based on social-media marketing or trusts-and-estates lawyering in a brick-and-mortar setting with retainers and billable hours based on marketing at the Rotary Club.

But that idea is not really right. There is an opportunity cost to the effort of improving the skill, even if the skill itself has no downside.

To use the most obvious opportunity cost I could think of, what about going to mediation training for 40 hours? Mediation and listening aren’t exactly the same thing, but any good mediation training should be spending a good chunk of time on effective listening.

So, to use Whelan’s value question in a broader hypothetical sense, would abandoning all other activities for 40 hours of mediation/listening training be worth it for a lawyer? This assumes the lawyer isn’t seeking an official mediation credential but rather thinking of investing in better listening more generally. Competing lawyers may be winning and keeping clients (as well as prevailing in negotiations and cases, etc. etc.) because they have better listening skills. But it’s very hard to prove that’s actually happening. So how should a lawyer or firm invest for effectiveness over the long term?

Here, additional parallels with legal tech emerge. Assuming a lawyer has decided in principle to work on listening via mediation training, how does that lawyer go about selecting the most effective training? One article from Mediate.com on how to select mediation training notes several challenges:

  • Potential participants don’t know the right questions to ask to select appropriate mediation training.
  • There’s no uniform regulation (nationally) over mediation training, although many states do regulate mediation training.
  • There are different theories within the field about what mediation even is and how it should work.
  • “Although the majority of organizations that provide mediation training are legitimate and are staffed by qualified trainers, there do exist mediation trainings that fall far short of accepted standards . . . .”

I’ll note that Georgia is strict in regulating mediation training. And I had a wonderful experience with 28 hours of mediation training towards a Georgia certification. It was fast-paced, well-supported, both practical and theoretical, and—most of all—immediately useful.

But beyond the challenge of selecting quality training, another challenge (threat?) is the idea that investing in listening training just wouldn’t help. In essence, a lawyer might think it would be harmless but probably also be a waste of time and resources. This attitude is likely to overlap with a “fixed mindset” about listening—the (mistaken) belief people’s listening skills are fundamentally set and cannot be appreciably improved with effort. When I started this blog, someone told me, “I’m a bad listener and always will be. People who work with me get used to it.” Just as some lawyers may resist even good legal tech because it doesn’t seem to them like it would really make a difference, lawyers might resist good methods for improving their communication skills for the same reason.

This resistance leads back to legal tech itself, on the merits. Whether you think listening is a fixed or learnable skill, is it possible that legal tech somehow revolutionize, disrupt, or at least modestly improve communication among people in the legal field?

Some tech startups—particularly those that facilitate online negotiation or online lawyer-matching—actually seem designed to replace face-to-face contact and perhaps thus diminish the importance of listening. The classic definition of listening requires the presence of “spoken and/or nonverbal messages,” both of which online communication excise from the interaction—perhaps for good reason in some situations. This roundup post on LexTech16 mentioned online dispute resolution for resolving family disputes in England. Likewise, the coparently app helps separating and divorcing parents “have less conversations with your ex and reduce conflict.” (Coparently and a number of other legal tech startups are listed on Bob Ambrogi’s recent, updated list of legal tech startups on LawSites. Click the link in his post to see the list.)

Other startups hint at the idea they could free up a lawyer’s time for other tasks. “Ross,” the AI-driven research startup based on IBM’s Watson, suggests it “lets you get back to being a lawyer.” So, to take a positive view, improved efficiency through excellent legal technology should mean less time spent manually reviewing bills or doing legal research, etc. etc. In turn, legal tech could mean more time for other professional or personal activities. And at least one possibility for what to do with such freed-up time has to do with listening—namely, more face-to-face contact and other human interaction.

Legal tech has potential to help lawyers (and others) with their communication more directly. For example, when we will see a commercial “sociometric device” that would report social metrics—such as a lawyer’s rate of listening versus talking? Kenneth Grady talked about these devices on the Seytlines blog:

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is one of the leaders in the people analytics field. His team developed sociometric devices—smartphones using special software—that teams of employees would wear during the day. The devices measured proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points. They did not capture what was being said. But, from this data Pentland’s team could determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity. By altering the work situation, such as aligning work breaks rather than staggering them, Pentland’s team drove performance improvement along many metrics.

We’ve all heard “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The idea of these sociometric devices opens new possibilities for measuring listening, generating data previously available only to communication scholars with extensive research support. Commercializing a device like that would be quite the marriage of listening and legal tech.


Post script: I mentioned above that Whelan’s blog talks about listening from several angles. One of those angles is pretty personal. Whelan has done readers a service with a series of open and honest posts on his wife’s ongoing struggle  with chronic illness, and how he manages his practice while supporting his wife and maintaining their relationship. As he says, it’s a story of “pushing through difficulty.” Here’s part 5 of that blog series; check out Lawyer Forward to see the earlier posts.

Client relationshipsLaw firm managementLegal communicationPeople skills

Anticipation = preparation

This week Attorney at Work re-published a “classic” (i.e. 2012) post by Gerry Riskin on “Five Things Lawyers Hate to Hear Clients Say.”  This post lays out some predictable, potentially recurring situations where communication is sensitive and can easily go awry. These situations certainly deal with classic challenges to lawyer-client relationships such as setting retainers, delegating work, identifying additional work, and dealing with an unhappy client.

Riskin says he’s not offering any scripts although the post does offer some ideas on language that might be a good start. He also qualifies that the post assumes the lawyer in these situations is in fact offering excellent service of unsurpassed quality. The idea is to anticipate challenging situations that arise even when the lawyer does provide great service and to handle them with tact. Part of this, of course, is listening and not getting defensive.

 

This post caught my interest because it’s not a “top-down” approach to listening. Instead of laying out general techniques and then applying them, it is structured around very specific situations where communication and client relationships are challenging. This seems more interesting to lawyers who don’t care about listening in an abstract sense but do want to have better experiences than the stressful situations they’ve encountered with clients. 

Focusing just on specific situations—the ones listed in Riskin’s post or whichever situations are most likely to arise in a particular lawyer’s practice—should certainly help a lawyer maintain client relationships. The opposite strategy, reacting in the moment without much thought and doing the same thing over and over, seems quite likely to yield less-than-optimal listening and client relationships.

Of course it’s also true that incredible communication skills may not fix a problem caused by other factors such as the economics of law practice. Those are issues for other blogs, but it seems pretty clear that incredible or at least reasonably strong communication skills are helpful in these situations.

Did Riskin capture the universally common situations that “lawyers hate to hear”?  Which ones would you add to his list?

 

CollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLeadershipPeople skills

Is teamwork the same as collaboration?

 

Earlier this week Listen Like a Lawyer discussed Google’s teamwork study investigating the qualities of effective teams. In the post I mentioned that teamwork is so important in part because many cases are too complex for one person to manage. One bit of feedback on the post agreed that teamwork is “vital now for successful legal practices.”

Shortly thereafter I ran across this post from Lisa Needham at the Lawyerist, “Too Much Teamwork is Terrible.” The post ends with a plea:

Ban teamwork. Or at least reduce it drastically.

Both the Google article in praise of effective teams and the Lawyerist post against teams cite the same Harvard Business Review study concluding “the time spent by managers and employees on collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”

So if teamwork is so good, why is it so bad?

I think the real issue is the difference between formal teams and informal collaboration throughout an organization.

The Google study profiled in the New York Times seemed to focus on formal work groups—groups formed by assignment to address some specific task or role over time. These work groups seem analogous to a group of lawyers assigned to a client service team or a specific deal, trial, or other project.

The Harvard Business Review article on collaboration appears to be addressing a much broader phenomenon. It’s not just about the dynamics inside individual work groups assigned to discrete projects, but also about collaboration throughout an organization. Collaboration may take the form of sharing information, sharing social resources, or sharing one’s own time and energy—which, unlike the first two categories of collaboration, is a finite and exhaustible resource. These can happen within a formal team or in broader, more diffuse ways throughout an organization. A person who is willing to collaborate with others may be subject to “escalating citizenship” in which workers who want to help become so over-burdened that they become a burned-out bottleneck. To quote the article, the “virtuous cycle” of collaboration turns “vicious.”

I’m no Adam Grant, but if this distinction is correct, then the Google study and the Lawyerist post are also both correct. Complex long-term problems and strategic goals cannot be solved by lone-wolf lawyers. Therefore, lawyers working in formal teams can benefit from studying their group norms and seeking to collaborate most effectively. These types of teams should not be disbanded or reduced in scope.

On the other hand, managers should monitor the collaborative burdens across their organization to avoid inefficient, inequitable demands on “extra milers” (quoting the HBR article) being asked to collaborate beyond the scope of their roles.

Of course there is a challenging question in the middle of this: work groups formed not for direct legal service but for internal firm/agency management. In other words, firm committees. These groups can certainly benefit from studying dynamics in the spirit of the Google study. But the HBR study and Lisa Needham’s critique raise the question: what is the reward structure of the firm or organization, and is collaborative committee work compromising individuals’ capacity to participate in that reward structure?

For insight into this question, I would first recommend Helen Wan’s great novel The Partner Track.

On a more quantitative note, the HBR study suggests collecting and assessing data about who is doing what. It also suggests employee surveys and 360 feedback. To take a 50,000-foot view of these suggestions, it seems that one way to begin to address this question is by listening.

 

 

Clinical legal educationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm managementLaw practiceLegal communication

Teamwork for lawyers

The thing I’ve most wanted to share here in recent months has been “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” published in the New York Times Magazine’s recent Work Issue. Building perfect teams—or at least more effective ones—is pretty important for the legal profession. For law firms, the complexity of many legal matters demands collaborative work. Yet client teams—and other types of teams such as deal teams and trial teams—are more likely to fail without a good understanding of team dynamics. And “law students baulk at the idea of group work.”

 

To understand why some of its teams performed better than others, Google launched a large study. At first no patterns emerged. Eventually, the key issue was something a bit more abstract than any specific metric. The issue was “group norms”:

Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound.

The impact of group norms on team performance was critical. It could make a team of individually “average” performers out-perform other groups. And it could make a team of individual rock stars perform poorly.

So if effective teams could be built upon consensus of any type—either to argue all the time or to build consensus all the time—then is there really any content to the idea of effective group norms? Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:

Actually, yes. The Google study found two common traits of good teams. This is where listening comes in:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test.

The broader impact of these two traits is that team members felt “psychological safety.” The New York Times article cited a study by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson describing psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

This article and the concepts it describes should, in my view, be required reading for any law school activity based on teams. It seems like a pretty good idea for law-firm managers as well. The lead researcher on Google’s Project Aristotle study became interested in the topic while attending graduate business school. She had one team that didn’t click, didn’t exactly fail but also didn’t prosper, and didn’t stick together for future projects. And she had another team that clicked and succeeded in competitive environments even though the group dynamics didn’t feel internally competitive.

Law students who’ve done any sort of group work and lawyers working collaboratively have similar stories. This article helps to explain why these teams end up the way they do. And it begins to address even more difficult questions about taking steps to create effective team dynamics from the outset and to make existing teams more effective.