Effective Collaboration for Law Firms
‘Collaboration’ has become a productivity buzzword – desired by all, but often ill-defined.
Everybody wants more effective teams, and there are dozens of ‘collaboration tools’ on the market, including Office 365, G Suite, Slack and many, many more. However, without making the effort to define what it means for you, and how you plan to achieve it, you are unlikely to achieve more than lip service to collaboration.
At Thread Legal, our company definition of collaboration involves a group of people empowered to work towards a shared goal. Every team member must understand their unique value and take ownership of achieving their personal goals and the team objectives.
An Environment for Collaboration
“What you measure is what you get. Period.” Dan Ariely, Harvard Business Review
Many law firms are set up to reward ‘lone wolf’ behaviour – the more business you bring in and manage yourself, the more money you get. As an Associate, unless you can make it onto the billable hours role, helping someone else effectively doesn’t count as time spent working.
Unless firms like this have the courage to change things, they will only pay lip service to collaboration, because their organisational structure is designed to discourage it.
For both large and small organisations, collaboration needs to be measured, recognised and rewarded. The level of formality you want to use depends on your organisation, and the level of mindset change that is needed to achieve a collaborative environment. In most instances, financial rewards for effective collaborators make sense.
The other important aspect to consider is the openness of the culture. In order to collaborate, every team member needs to be able to voice their opinion without fear, and to take full ownership of their area of the project. Law firms are hierarchical by nature – even well-intentioned partners may be unaware that associates and administrative staff are afraid to challenge them in case it affects their working relationship or promotional prospects. Some partners may actively discourage staff voicing any ideas that have not come from the partner themselves.
Partners will need to be truly committed to collaborative honesty, and to demonstrate over a period of time that feedback and ideas are genuinely desired, before staff will feel safe to speak up. No matter how many guidelines are put in place, staff know the difference between policy and reality.
Collaboration Tools for Law Firms
There are many collaboration tools for companies; so many, that it can be somewhat confusing to understand the nuances of what each one does and how it can be helpful. Too many tools can mean that information becomes fractured, stored across so many sources that no-one is sure where the data they need is held.
At Thread Legal, one of our key goals was to make collaboration simple and effective – a combination of case management and Office 365 (the platform our system is built on), can provide all the tools your business needs.
With Thread Legal, all of your documents are stored on your case file, and templates are stored within the appropriate file category. This means that any person working on a project can within a couple of clicks find the most recent versions of the documents they need.
Using a case management system is critical for effective collaboration within law firms.
Email is still the most effective way of communicating with clients. However, when emails are stuck on an individual’s system, information is often not shared effectively with other team members.
Thread Legal allows you to email from within the system, and all emails sent from a case file are automatically tagged to that case file. This means that all team members with permissions are able to access information sent by clients.
Internal communication is often where things can get the most complicated.
The first thing that companies need to learn to do is to keep the case files completely up to date. This eliminates a lot of dialogue about who’s done what, and where the project is at.
Secondly, choose an internal communication method. Email is the traditional choice, and for some it is the best. In the Thread office, our tool of choice is Microsoft Teams. As a lawyer, you can set up a team for each case file, and then your project team can see all messages relating to the file, but only get alerts for messages in which they are specifically tagged. This allows team members to see the entire chain of communication when needed, but without constant, distracting message alerts.
Thread Legal also integrates with Microsoft Planner, so you can create your workflow in Thread, and then assign tasks to each member of the team. This helps your project to stay on track. Tasks are held within the Thread application, so you can see them on the file. You can also see them in the Microsoft Planner application.
The most important thing you can do to support collaboration is to pick a clear set of tools and instances in which you can use them, and then mandate their use. When people are confused, and each pick their own tool of choice, information is proliferated across several platforms and it is easy for things to become missed.
What we aimed to do with Thread Legal is help lawyers with this issue of internal communication. By combining the functionality of several applications into one platform, that is specifically tailored for lawyers, information needed is literally at lawyers’ fingertips.
Face to face meetings are important, and always will be. However, ‘meeting Olympics’ can often feel, and often be, a waste of time.
Collaborating effectively means cutting unnecessary meetings and making meetings more efficient. When communication tools are working effectively, everyone should have the information needed. This means that meetings should be focussed on analysing information – on solving problems, giving feedback and applauding success – rather than on simply sharing the information.
When meetings add to what is already on offer in online information systems, rather than repeating it, then they can add better value.
Collaboration needs to begin with a mindset change. Law firms are hierarchical by nature, and for those used to decision making, changing to a more democratic system can be challenging.
However, the benefits are very clear. Staff who have a clear mandate, and are empowered with the tools and authority they need to complete this, will do better. Teams will become more focussed and will tackle obstacles to productivity that senior managers might not even have realised were there.
Choosing the right collaboration tools is an important part of this journey – to collaborate effectively, teams need timely access to the information that they need to fulfil their objectives. We have tried to show in this article how we’ve approached collaboration for lawyers within Thread Legal, combining several Microsoft functionalities to create an all-in-one system that gives lawyers the information they need.
Good luck on your collaboration journey!
*Extra Tips – Are You Truly Ready for Change?
Practical Steps to Achieving Collaboration
1) Set clear goals and objectives. In order to work towards a shared goal, you need a clearly defined goal. It’s a simple practice, but make sure that your goals are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based).
2) Set clear goals for each team member, with deadlines, and give them the tools to achieve them. Give staff members the information they need to do their job, and then allow them autonomy. Staff members shouldn’t have to constantly ask questions because they have not been given the full details of the assignment. They also shouldn’t feel like getting approvals from senior management unnecessarily holds them up. To work as a cohesive team, managers and partners need to take their responsibility to junior team members as seriously as they expect in reverse.
3) Give team members the ability to access the expertise and resources they need. If a team member needs input from someone else, either within or outside the project team, this needs to happen rapidly. Any blockers in the project’s progress need to be quickly reported to the senior partner on the case and resolved. More junior team members’ needs are just as important, and if senior level staff are putting them to the bottom of the queue this needs to be resolved with the senior staff. Equally, if a client is answering emails from senior staff, but ignoring juniors, this needs to be resolved in a way that allows the staff member to achieve their goals.
4) Consistently gather feedback on both the progression of the goal, and the effectiveness of collaboration. If you have delegated correctly, and given people the tools they need, you then need to hold them accountable for achieving their objectives. One of the reasons managers can be reluctant to give autonomy is for fear that bad work will be missed. Regular feedback ensures that any issues with achieving objectives are caught early, external blockers are removed and any performance management issues aren’t allowed to fester. Managers often find that they are more rather than less able to manage performance in a collaborative environment, because each staff member’s contribution is more clearly defined and able to be reviewed.
Feedback can also identify when the flow of work moves from one person to another and ensure that transitions are made smoothly.
5) Use collaboration tools to make communication more effective. See the previous section!
6) Review each project when completed in order to identify future improvement areas. The best time to do this is within a week of the main body of work being completed, so that it is fresh in everybody’s minds. Make sure that this is not a blaming session. The time for negative individual feedback is in an individual performance meeting. The project leader should make sure that appropriate praise is given, and that the meeting is focussed on solutions and positive improvement.