Law firms today engage in “the business of law” as much as “the practice of law” and those who bring in the business are valued and directly rewarded for their “rainmaking” abilities.
Rather than collaborate, lawyers are trained and socialized to compete at everything, including business development.
But Heidi Gardner, a scholar at the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession argues that “true rainmakers don’t need to be convinced to collaborate: referring work to colleagues and developing a loyal team capable of extraordinary client service is the only way they can build an enormous portfolio.”
She reveals her research findings, in an article on Bloomberg BNA, and lays out some steps to help less-experienced partners or associates develop collaborative schemes as an integral part of their professional repertoire.
The researchers surveyed hundreds of law firm partners at various firms for over a decade.
“Our research shows that rainmakers who collaborate – that is, share the work that they originate –end up with significantly bigger books of business than those who tend to hoard work,” she wrote.
The causal link is clear and conclusive. The researchers found that even when they controlled for various factors, rainmakers who hand off work to others do better because they continue to reap the rewards of existing business, while leaving themselves free to pursue new opportunities.
The research also suggests that cross-practice collaboration is even more likely to provide long-term financial rewards. Gardner attributes this to the fact that partners learn a lot by interacting with lawyers in other fields. This arms them with a broader knowledge base and the ability to help clients creatively solve their problems. Clients, Gardner speculates, may recognize this and pay higher hourly rates to benefit from a team’s strategic savvy, as well as technical legal advice.
Gardner points out that clients tend to view individual lawyers as fungible, except for those with bespoke expertise — which few can claim. A cross-practice team is harder to replicate elsewhere and worth paying more for.
Even though the benefits are clear, a number of cultural and institutional barriers prevent most partners from collaborating. Gardner notes that collaboration takes a long time — years, if not decades — to pay off. Then there’s trust, or often a conspicuous lack of it between partners in a firm.
Lawyers often don’t trust their own colleagues. One reason is competence: most lawyers don’t share work with people they fear will screw it up. The other reason is competition. Lawyers don’t share when they’re afraid the other person will steal their client or sabotage them in some way.
The third systemic barrier to collaboration is poor communication. Many lawyers are not even aware of their own firm’s offerings, making it hard to build cross-practice teams.
While these issues persist at most firms, rainmakers across the board have found ways to overcome them and foster collaboration. Again, Gardner notes that this takes time and perseverance because the benefits are not instant. It takes a while to build the network, but once there are systems and teams in place, they increase efficiency significantly.
Gardner recommends finding a cohort of colleagues you can depend on, by building relationships gradually and then referring each other to clients who seem to “fit” with your colleague’s style. Trust and relationships develop when people act with honesty and integrity.
Another great way to increase collaboration is to really get to know your clients’ businesses. Actually immerse yourself in their world, beyond narrow legal issues and concerns. Think about what they read and understand the fundamental aspects of their business model. Talking to them and learning what problems they’re dealing with will help you come up with ways to help them through collaboration, which ultimately will make you a more valued advisor.
Updated and republished April 21, 2017.