How to fail at collaboration

With collaboration in professional services firms very much in the news as a result of the work and publications of Heidi K. Gardner of Harvard Business School, it’s a good time for Dialogue to publish How to fail at collaboration, an iconic post by Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson. We all know that many law firms send mixed messages to their lawyers (and often to their clients, too). They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk, particularly when it comes to the informal norms and values that define “the way we do things around here.” This opens them up to charges of hypocrisy – or at least insensitivity to the human factors that define law firm success in today’s market.

Consider, as a timely example, the legal profession’s continuing cry for better collaboration – both between law firm and client and among firm lawyers in a practice group or on a client team. Also, consider clients that have converged their roster of outside firms to just a few in number, and who now want their firms to collaborate with each other – for the benefit of the client.For firms or teams with historically non-collaborative cultures (and that describes 99.9% of them), this “whole collaboration thing” has become a huge annoyance, an attempted interference with “how we’ve always practiced law.”  For these folks the challenge is thorny: convince everyone that their culture is changing with the times while continuing to conduct business as usual.  When they fail, there is often a huge – and demoralizing — gap between the cup and the lip.

Lost in Translation — A Tragic Play in Four Bad Acts

To illustrate, let us cast a true tale in the form of a play, the players disguised, but the plot all too familiar.Alone 

Act I

In the course of a client survey conducted by a major firm’s marketing department, an important client expresses dissatisfaction with a particular practice group. The survey response complains, in no uncertain terms, that the client team is extremely hard to work with (actually “jerks” is the term used). Particularly noteworthy is the charge that they seem unable or unwilling to collaborate effectively with the client — aloof, unresponsive, arrogant and generally unhelpful.This client’s clout (and, let’s be honest, the threat  of lost revenue from that client), plus this client team’s low marks, grabs the attention of the Managing Partner and the Executive Committee.   The Practice Group Leader is informed that he must fix this problem, pronto.

Act II

Scene I: Duly alarmed at the prospect of losing big-time revenue, the Practice Group Leader calls on the Professional Development staff to implement “intensive collaboration training” forthwith. To avoid inconveniencing senior lawyers with high billing rates, the PD folks are instructed to commence this “culture-shifting initiative” at only the associate and principal/non-equity partner levels; senior level lawyers need not attend. The PD staff, of course, does as it is told, but several of them are seen rolling their eyes. 

Scene II: In a frontal PR assault, the firm next informs the complaining client that it has received the memo and that the whole practice group will be undertaking intensive collaboration skills training forthwith to improve its culture and make it a more collaborative, responsive and more relationship-oriented provider of legal services.So the firm has attempted to send two messages here:

1) We’ve changed, really we have! 

2) We can instantly transform ourselves into a collaborative culture simply by subjecting our lawyers to a one-time training program. 

By and large, the client response is favorable to this pronouncement, save for one brief, troubling  response from a senior member of the client’s legal department: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the proof will be in the pudding.  I’m from Missouri.  Show me.”

Scene III: A consulting firm known for expertise in legal leadership and team effectiveness is retained to develop a bespoke collaboration skills workshop “to be used as a pilot for subsequent workshops in various firm practice groups.”The consultants’ proposal calls for an initial cultural assessment of the group’s norms and operative values to create a “collaboration baseline.”  This will be the foundation for a highly interactive 1.5-day off-site workshop using realistic case studies, role plays and other hands-on exercises to teach practical collaboration, delegation, feedback and motivational skills. The consultants even suggest a module at the end where some client lawyers can sit in and interact with the firm lawyers in order to “cement” the new collaborative approach. 

Scene IV: After a brief meeting in a dark cave, the firm’s Management Committee finds this approach too expensive and insists that the workshop be shortened and conducted with a “selected” group of associates – mandated to attend — and a couple of firm partners in a conference room at the firm. No client in-house lawyers are invited to attend.It gets worse. Over the consultants’ objections, the final workshop design calls for a single 3-hour “Principles of Collaboration” workshop that includes only a few interactive group discussions, but no case studies, role-modeling or partner participation except for one practice group leader. It includes a “working lunch,” so that participants’ time away from their desks is minimized.  Oh, and to “optimize our investment,” the firm insists that the workshop be eligible for CLE credit.In short, the “intensive collaboration initiative” has morphed into a quickie, drive-by training seminar. Several of the consultants are seen rolling their eyes.  When the associates are told to attend, they lower their eyes.

The Play is the Thing


Scene I: When the workshop begins, several associates ask about its objectives and how it connects up with their quality of life (laughs around the room) and their annual performance evaluations. A firm representative promises that “this is the first step in a cultural reboot” of the practice group and that the workshop has been designed as a professional development opportunity. Several associates are seen rolling their eyes. 

Scene II: In a discussion of how to give performance feedback – both reinforcement (praise) and corrective (criticism) – as well as how to provide incentives for superior performance, one practice group leader describes the firm’s cultural climate and its feedback approach thus:

Practice Group Leader (PGL): Well, all this kindler-gentler stuff sounds well and good, but if you want to know the truth, I’ll tell you how we really do it around here. When a young lawyer screws up, we use the “blame and shame” method. We cut them out of the herd, let ‘em stew in shame, and stop assigning them work. Pretty soon they get the picture that they’re in trouble.

Workshop Leader (WL): Who gives them feedback and instruction about what they did wrong and can do better?  When do they get that feedback? 

PGL: No one.  And never. That’s the point. Our view is that if they can’t figure out what they did wrong, they’re not going to make it here in the long run, and they’re not the kind of lawyers a firm of this caliber should spend a lot of effort trying to cultivate. 

WL: Well, what effect does this isolate-and-shame approach have on team members’ willingness to collaborate, share information, and give constructive feedback? 

PGL: It is not our culture to nurture the weak. We subscribe to what some call “social Darwinism:” we throw ‘em into the deep end of the pool, and a couple of years later we come back to see who is still afloat. 

WL (agitated): In addition to destroying any incentive to collaborate, isn’t that approach to lawyer development pretty expensive at today’s salaries? 

PGL: We are not a social services organization.  Lawyers who make it here survive a trial by fire, and they are all the tougher for it. This approach has long been the basis of our reputation, and we’re not going to change now. Law is not about kumbaya collaboration; it’s about excellent individual performance. 

WL:  Have you asked your clients what they think about this approach? 

PGL: What our clients want is the best legal advice from the smartest lawyers. Collaboration is just a trend that clients will abandon when the next “new thing” comes down the pike. 

Act IV

Scene I: Nothing very much changes.  The stage remains dark, the actors sullen, the client silent. 

Scene II: Seven months later, the client who had complained about the lack of collaboration announces a “convergence program” to reduce the number of firms it uses and to create a core panel of law firm providers.  The firm is asked to respond to a detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) that notes that the client will be using a “zero-based selection process” under which no existing service provider will be given preference. 

Scene III: The firm’s marketing department writes a 35-page response to the RFP which claims, inter alia, that 1) “Effective client communication and collaboration are an historical  hallmark of the firm’s approach to legal service delivery;” and 2) “The firm’s rigorous and newest approaches to professional development builds attorneys of unparalleled expertise, judgement and commitment, at all lawyer levels.”

Scene III: By subsequent letter, the firm is informed that it has not been selected as one of the client’s panel firms and is instructed to transfer all existing files to a certain medium-sized litigation firm in the deep south.  A deep cry of anguish is heard, stage right. As the curtain falls, paralegals are seen rolling their eyes as they pack up the boxes.


Pam describes herself as ‘more than a battlefield correspondent or LPM guru. She works daily with a broad spectrum of clients to improve the efficiency of legal service delivery and quality of law firm-client communication, coaches law firm partners on business development, and advises law firm managing partners on strategies for success. As she helps in-house clients select and manage outside counsel and works with law firms to improve collaboration, service delivery,  efficiency, pricing, profitability and business development, Pam both observes and defines the legal industry’s cutting edge.

Doug Richardson’s diverse career combined law and communication from the outset. He holds a JD from Harvard Law School and a Master’s Degree in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School. Formerly a large firm litigator and federal prosecutor, he often collaborates with Pam in implementing innovative Legal Project Management initiatives.

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