One of my favorite topics to discuss is the idea of collaboration. It’s been much more popular over the last few years, but as we get deeper into the pandemic, the isolation is driving up the risk of returning those of us in the legal industry to silos (if some of us ever really left). I know that there’s been a lot of upheaval this year, and reverting to the way things “were” may sound attractive, in the same way that the phrase “but this is the way we’ve always done it!” can be. But I promise you that more than ever, insisting on moving forward with collaboration in the legal industry, both across silos and across functions within the profession, is essential for us to be successful.
Before we get into the “how” of collaboration in 2020, if you’d like to understand “why” you should bother to collaborate, head over to “The Case for Collaboration in Law Firm Networks: the Value Proposition for Your Clients.”
The good news about collaboration in 2020 is that it doesn’t require you to buy any new technology that you haven’t already purchased this year, or sign up for yet another webinar or zoom call. It only challenges you to either re-engage the skills that you were already embracing pre-pandemic, or to dig deep and find them within yourself. They are:
I have started Richard Susskind’s most recent book, co-authored with his son, Daniel, about The Future of the Professions. In it, the Susskinds say that:
Very often, after we give talks on our ideas, we are approached by individuals who argue that what we say applies right across the professions except in one field – their own. Lawyers, for example, tend to be quick to argue for a shake-up in our health and education services, but find it less apparent that legal services would benefit from major overhaul.”
However, to embrace change, and truly, in order to collaborate effectively, which will be essential in the new legal marketplace, we need to be more open-minded than that. What if – consider it before dismissing it – the legal industry COULD benefit from change? What if your practice could benefit from change? What if change could make you more efficient and actually more profitable?
When you’re engaging with colleagues, or technologists, or clients, or others in and around the legal ecosystem, embrace a willingness to listen across functions and silos, and maybe leave some of our pre-conceived ideas behind. It’s unsettling for sure, but necessary and incredibly rewarding. When you approach a collaborative discussion with the conviction that you are ready to be open-minded and listen to everyone’s ideas and at least consider them, amazing things can happen.
This may sound far-fetched, but consider what happened at the beginning of this year – a pandemic required almost the entire profession of law (and most others) to move from their offices to remote working. And somehow, we managed it. There were some bumps along the way, but we navigated paperless working, zoom calls, zoom hearings in many jurisdictions, virtual deals, and more. All of those things would have been unthinkable if anyone had suggested them a year ago – so imagine what else we might be capable of if we only remain open-minded?
That brings me to my next tip – the idea of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Change is uncertain. Collaboration can be a risk. So is staying open to new and different ideas, and sometimes hearing things we may not want to hear. In some of these conversations with clients, with technology companies, with other professionals in our firms, we may hear some unpleasant things about the way the business of law has been conducted until now. Not all of them will be true, but many of those grievances will need to be aired in a safe space (and you may need the opportunity to air some of your own), so that a constructive solution can ultimately be reached.
Often, having difficult conversations is what leads to the solutions that we’re all looking for. You may assume you know why a client is behaving in a certain way (especially right now), but when you dig a little deeper, you uncover an easier fix that you can implement immediately. It takes that first willingness to be open-minded, coupled with the willingness to be uncomfortable, to make real change and come to solutions that are truly collaborative. Both sides feel heard and validated, and forward progress is achieved.
I suspect we can all say that we’ve been uncomfortable in 2020, even those of us who never had to work remotely. Travel has been restricted, client meetings aren’t happening in the same way, and business certainly isn’t the same. We may not *like* it, but we’ve certainly had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Since we’re already here….let’s keep going. As I said earlier, the tendency when things are so uncomfortable and unfamiliar is to retreat to what we know – I fully understand that and endorse it for certain things, particularly when it comes to your mental health. But we’ve also seen that in some ways, things have gotten…better…right?
For some people, there’s been an improved quality of life when you work remotely part of the week. While I believe it will be essential to have some time in the office together, maybe a hybrid schedule will be the way we work in the future. While we will always benefit from getting to know each other in person and understanding each other’s cultures and communities through travel, some meetings will be easier and more efficient by being hosted virtually. We will stay in greater contact and deepen our connections in between those face-to-face meetings. So while there are drawbacks to being uncomfortable, there are also some silver linings, which we should continue to seek.
And that gets us to the final piece of the puzzle – knowing how to compromise. This is a hard one for lawyers, who are hard wired to be perfectionists – lawyers want to know something is going to be right and perfect before it’s launched, otherwise why launch it? (Raise your hand if that sounds like you – I know that’s how I am, and why is that such a bad thing, right?).
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much antithetical to the new change market. So I understand why so many lawyers have put their heads in the sand, their fingers in their ears and are singing “la la la la,” hoping it will go away. But change is here to stay, and it’s not as scary as you think. That’s what collaboration is about – you’re never alone in the process. It’s all a team effort.
There are two pieces to this – the first is compromise: “It may not be perfect NOW, but I’m willing to try it to see if things improve.” Also, “It may not be exactly what I want, but I’m willing to try because I know that the end result may be better than what we’re doing now.” Both of these take a leap of faith, which is essential in collaboration and change management.
And guess what? You’ve already done that this year – NOTHING was perfect when the pandemic started, and we had to make changes without having any idea whether things would be perfect. How did we get through that? Collaboration and communication. Every firm I’ve spoken with said “we worked with our IT professionals to ensure that we had the technology to work remotely,” “we worked with each of our lawyers to ensure that they had the hardware and software to work comfortably from home,” “we worked with our staff to implement the plan that we had.” None of us have ever faced a pandemic before, so we were all crossing our fingers and hoping that things would work out – we tried some things, which were wildly successful, and tested others that failed. And both were okay. In part, we had permission to fail, because the entire market was doing it together. So why not continue with that mindset?
The lawyers I’ve been talking to in recent weeks have all be pleasantly surprised that the absolutely failures that we feared have not taken place (and hopefully won’t). This gives us permission to see that trying new things, and succeeding, can be wonderful for firms…and that trying new things, and failing, isn’t the end of your practice. So let’s work on letting go of that need for perfection.
The second piece is progress over perfection – we need to be moving the needle forward, even if the project isn’t picture perfect. Nowhere has this been more obvious than during the pandemic. Compromise, open-mindedness, and being uncomfortable has led to some amazing collaboration that is leading change and real progress in the legal industry right now. We couldn’t have envisioned this a year ago, and we wouldn’t have wanted to. But if we’re forced to cope with the current situation, why not make the most out of it?
When you consider something in those terms, doesn’t it sound like collaboration and change are things you want to get on board with? Since we have already been forced to collaborate and change in 2020, doesn’t it make sense to continue moving forward on this path, and seeing what ELSE we can innovate to bring about effective and efficient change in legal in the future?
When we work together, and bring to the table our open-mindedness, a willingness to compromise, and the ability to be a little bit uncomfortable, brilliant solutions can be reached – there are talented professionals in and outside of this industry that are working together to drive success for everyone. Whether you do that on a large scale, or a small scale, embracing these ideas can bring you successful collaboration as well.