Collaboration Focus: Creating a culture of collaboration for competitive advantage

Is everybody in the Legal Sector collaborating now? And what does it actually mean?

Client expectation in the legal market over how problems can be solved is changing, Working in traditional silos is becoming a block to evolving at a fast enough pace to react to those market dynamics. Law has been somewhat shielded from the levels of disruption seen in other industries and sectors, but the pressure is building. Ignoring the need to collaborate with clients, across practice areas, business functions and (daringly) with each other, only leaves the door open for those that do, states Rae of Wilson Fletcher.

The term ‘collaboration’ is in danger of overuse in the legal sector – and yet few clients or lawyers can point to collaborative efforts that have changed anything to lasting effect. Where clients are still frustrated and internal projects that bring different skill sets together are rare, efforts to collaborate effectively still appear to be floundering.

In this current era, what does collaboration mean for law and how do you go about it?

It’s human nature to stick to what we know

If we consider that the lawyer has traditionally occupied a position of authoritative knowledge, as a safe pair of hands, it is understandable that moving into a place of uncertainty is tough. To collaborate successfully requires an element of psychological safety – the licence to throw some off-the-wall ideas out there that can be weighed up, developed or discarded by the group.

Collaborating and exploring problems in this manner requires a different set of skills and behaviours, and is the first hurdle to get over. Asking whether the firm is culturally ready to approach relationships and problems in this way is a fair question. In any business, an employee that delivers work in the way it’s always been done is in a relatively risk-free position. If they try something new, and it doesn’t work, the risk to the employee’s standing in the firm is much higher. It takes a brave soul to forge ahead within a pervading culture of status-quo behaviour.

Outside the legal sector, businesses that excel at innovation and collaboration view learnings as more important than outcomes. It’s a very effective way to build that psychological safety in from the beginning: “if this doesn’t work, it will still be valuable” is a very reassuring place to start.

It’s a common client frustration that firms aren’t proactively collaborating to create better value and frame advice in a more usable way for their business. From the firm’s perspective, reluctance to drive collaboration with a client is not necessarily rooted in being unwilling to change. The genuine fear of not knowing where to start will produce the same response.

When firms commit to engaging with their clients in this way, facilitation by an experienced third party can be the answer while that confidence is built. Choose one that incorporates upskilling as part of the engagement and you can engender a culture of collaboration within your firm at every level. Not only will this pay you back in your strengthened client relationships, but ingraining this habit will smooth the path of internal projects to better outcomes along the way.

Open the door

So when will this opportunity to collaborate come knocking? The short answer is all the time. The trick is to see this not simply as an opportunity to collaborate, but to change the practice’s core mind-set so that anything can be approached in this way. It is easy to assume that the most mundane of matters doesn’t require this kind of attitude – after all, it’s been done this way for years, so let’s not employ the sledgehammer to crack the legal nut.

Therein lies the danger. The assumption about the outcome, ways of working and deliverables, without listening to the client really leads to a rigid demand and supply relationship. If a continual pipeline of business relies largely on the relationship between that client and the partner, the tie is slender and vulnerable.

From the perspective of the individual, this collaborative attitude translates directly into effect on career. Putting it simply, collaboration leads to stronger client relationships. Those lawyers with secure client relationships are more likely to be advanced and retained by the firm – if nothing else, to stop those relationships leaving with that lawyer to another firm.

Just start somewhere

Exhibiting these behaviours opens the way for others in the firm to follow suit. Newly qualified colleagues are more likely to have learned this in law school, and are more likely to try something new… if they are given the agency to do so. A different approach driven with energy, and spreading a ripple of advocates, allows the flexing and exercising of that collaboration muscle to start small – but not in isolation.

For those sceptical of whether this is worth the effort; watching a project unfold in this way and encountering these champions will push that initial small snowball to gather momentum.

Conversations with our network bought up some interesting examples of how that mind-set change can produce much better results, and how the lack of it is becoming a real hindrance.

An in-house counsel shared a couple of stories of two very different experiences and outcomes.

The first; a legal knowledge session for a business audience of non-legal people that needed to be ‘less legal’ and more human-centred in order to implement the knowledge. The firm was brought in and briefed on what was needed, and guidance given on how to shape it for that audience.

The partner of the firm insisted that was not the way they did things, and was very resistant to all suggestions – responding that a more visual presentation would be akin to a comic book! The session rolled around and the partner arrived with his papers, sat down in the conference room and proceeded to read the materials off his paper. The subsequent audience feedback was as negative as had been originally anticipated, culminating in nothing that could be implemented. Exactly what my contact was afraid of. As outcomes go, that is particularly poor and a classic example of the hubris that wrecks client-firm relationships.

The second story he shared with me was quite different. Another knowledge session was required, this time with a non-legal group of STEM-centred people. A different firm was invited in, briefed and suggestions made as before. The experience was dramatically different. The firm listened, understood what was needed….and sent their Head of Marketing & Innovation to work on it with them. She brought a very different mind-set and skillset; open to listening and doing things differently. A simple and visual session was co-created, specifically designed for the business’s STEM customers. That practical session went very well and the feedback was great.

My contact boiled the main differences down for me:

  • Be open and not afraid to listen and work with your client
  • Bring a learning mind-set prepared to learn from anyone
  • Bringing in a person or a team with a different skill, mind-set, and experience can really help the relationship with the client
  • Don’t be afraid to let someone new work with the client – it can strengthen your relationship with them further

I’ll quote him directly now as it’s so powerful:

“It’s ok not to know… this was the first time this firm did something like this. They were very nervous when they came to our offices to present and do the session. They came with both the partner and the innovation manager and we all did this session together. They can now take this and market it to their other customers.”

It’s not a huge leap to speculate on which firm is more likely to get their future business.

There’s another example from our own backyard. We ran a project with a large legal technology provider, exploring an idea they’d had to increase the efficiency of a law firm.

A diverse team was quickly immersed in the problems firms faced, and the potential present and future levers for change. The product function from the legal tech company co-located with us in our studio to make the most of the team’s collective brain. It was immensely enjoyable all-round.

Together we spoke to a range of people in differing roles and with varied experience from over 15 firms. Learning, co-creating and iterating the experience with the lawyers and the tech provider as we went, we reached a confident service strategy and vision in just four weeks. The end result was conceptually very different from where it started. However, it had greater commercial potential and with a much higher prospect of user adoption – arguably the most important measure of a service’s success.

Attempting this in isolation, albeit with talented people experienced across the board, would never have reached the same outcome. Breadth of experience, perspective and the opportunity to share those regularly with each other was the fuel for that fire.

Serendipitous collisions

Outside the legal sector, big growth companies like Apple and Google recognise that collaboration and creativity happen with the collision of experiences and ideas through chance physical meetings. Presuming that your firm isn’t about to start demolishing offices and relocating kitchens in the imminent future – how else can you manufacture those interactions? Inviting a cognitively diverse group of people to join in the engagement is a great first step. If you’ve invited a designer and there is little for them to do, at worst it’s a couple of hours of their time that could have gone to something else. But at best, it’s absorbed knowledge of that project which could be shared with someone else through another happenstance meeting – and their different perspective might just be the one to unlock the breakthrough idea.

Small doesn’t mean side-lined

Put into the context of a small firm, greater freedom is matched by greater limitation. Realigning firm culture to adopt these practices is easier with a smaller group of people but diversity of experience and skill set is likely to be narrower. Perhaps the answer to this is for bold firms to form around a ‘legal practice hub’ – if not with sister firms then at least cousins. For example, imagine shared design and product functions who are actively encouraged to distribute learnings from each firm to the others. Even better, attack common problems together as an inter-firm team. This effectively creates a cumulative wave of the opportunity available in a much larger firm to improve productivity and client relationships for everyone. Trust between the firms would need to be paramount, but by embedding habitual sharing throughout the partnership layer, the commercial pay off could be enormous for all.

A buying collective could work too – so that technology could be licenced across multiple firms, allowing for better rates to be negotiated and a single plan to pilot and roll out. By itself this is unlikely to be that helpful, but in a wider cultural shift to sharing ideas as well as resources it could be a great enabler.

Go one step further and gather these firms into a single building – built around shared kitchen, eating and meeting spaces. Serendipitous collision of ideas on your doorstep from a much broader range of thinking. Beyond referring a client to an associated firm for another matter, imagine being able to physically walk that client straight over for a literal personal introduction. Even better, share that space with other diverse businesses unrelated to the legal sector and you have the crucible for some really exciting stuff to happen.

Now some of these ideas maybe stretching the elastic, but in an environment of increasing pressure, thinking differently is the separation between survival and flourishing.

It’s no surprise that a culture of collaboration in a firm benefits not only client relationships, but also outcomes, services and internal processes, yet there are few examples in the legal sector of a full culture shift to this new way of working. By adopting this approach as a competitive differentiator, might we see legal market disruption coming not from new tech or business models, but from new mind-sets and skills within traditional firms?

One thing is clear, the growing shift in client expectation will dictate the rules of this game.


Rae Digby Morgan

Wilson Fletcher
Rae Digby-Morgan is an experienced innovation consultant and product development leader with Wilson Fletcher, a business innovation consultancy. The work led by Rae drives innovation and efficiency for organisations through digital service strategy and user-centred design. Rae’s specialism is innovation and design in the legal sector from a background in legal tech. Rae has over 15 years experience in leading product strategy, roadmapping and service design programmes and works closely with client teams to deliver on commercial goals through organisational and digital innovation, collaboration and championing great user experiences.