The building blocks for a successful collaborative culture
Chris Marston explores the ways in which law firms can establish a powerful collaborative culture
The collapse of California-based Silicon Valley Bank saw shockwaves reverberate around the world. In the UK, the London-based subsidiary of the tech specialist bank was under threat of administration. Faced with this immediate danger to their businesses, the bank’s UK customer base of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists rallied together to try and save the independent subsidiary. Having joined forces, they called on their tech networks and professional bodies to support them in making a case to government ministers and senior UK banking executives.
We know the outcome: over a single weekend SBV UK was saved from the jaws of administration by HSBC and the power of collaboration, where the parties making common cause included some organisations that might be regarded as competitors with each other and with the rescued bank. A perfect case study for the potency of collaboration.
Partnerships in business
But successful collaboration is not confined to such potentially ruinous times. Partnerships in the business world can bring new knowledge and audiences, push industry boundaries, as well as solve sticky issues. Simply put, it’s a way of expanding and diversifying the talent on your team without the on-cost.
And while there may be some resistance among law firms in getting too close to their competitors, being open to finding routes to engage with sector peers and cross-sector connections can have a significant and positive impact on business strength.
Our annual surveying among SME law firms illustrates this, with professionals valuing connection, interaction and knowledge sharing with other firms as a crucial differentiator for them and their businesses.
Typically, in the £2m-£25m turnover range, LawNet members use their network to share solutions, best practice and knowledge, peer-to-peer, whether in person at our learning events, or through online discussion sessions and community forums. We see some exciting examples of collaboration across our network, with firms working together on issues ranging from artificial intelligence (AI) to human resources (HR), with clear evidence that openness encourages reciprocity.
And while big ideas and overall business development may seem like the main reason for sharing with others, this collaborative connection building can also pay dividends when it supports the more solitary roles in law firms. A managing partner looking to develop their leadership skills, or specialists in areas like compliance, IT or marketing who may be working alone or without a mentor or sounding board in their specialist sphere, can all benefit enormously.
A specialist group can drill down into an agenda that would not be feasible in a more generic legal grouping. The topics covered by our risk and compliance forum can range from residual client balances or work experience confidentiality to sanctions and complaints. Jill Entwistle of Slater Heelis is one compliance specialist who participates, and she says: “This is helpful to discuss practical challenges and how others in the group are combatting these and putting strategies in place.”
Another group that may benefit significantly, in both personal development and in what they bring back to the firm, are younger lawyers. We regularly host sessions to enable practical sharing and development experience among this peer group, and after taking part Seema Gill of Howell Jones commented: “It was great to work together on tasks with other junior lawyers. It helped hone the skills of working collaboratively as it’s easy to become complacent and believe you work well in a team when you work with the same people.” Sharing can also stimulate aspiration, as she adds: “There are so many incredible junior lawyers within the network and I enjoy seeing their journeys and am often inspired by their achievements.”
So how can law firms create and lock in a culture of collaboration with others, whether at the practical, granular level or when considering a strategic leap? Let’s look at four core components: confidence, communication, creativity and critiquing.
Trust can be the biggest single arbiter of how successful a collaboration will be, as it can influence how openly you share confidences or vulnerabilities.
This makes finding the right setting crucial from the start. Sometimes trust may be implicit in the environment you’re joining - for our members they know they can speak openly with their LawNet peers as they are operating in a non-competing environment with a long-established Chatham House Rule culture, whether informally one-to-one, or with managed interactions through our forum programme. But even without such reassurance, there is an opportunity for greater cooperation in the sector generally, with the right outlook.
Firms interested in setting up collaborative structures with others in their sector, or from a range of business sectors, should ask themselves some basic questions. Would you be best served with an open or closed network of collaborators? Should you be all inclusive or hierarchical in defining those taking part - will you enable a firm-wide multi-disciplinary approach to learning outside the firm or identify a leader to join with other leaders? And do you have a clear route for bringing problems or feedback to and from the table?
These questions hold true whether you have decided to join forces with a single firm, perhaps because you feel there is little direct competition and you can be open with each other, or taking part in a larger, legal sector grouping. Maybe you are hoping to use a general business networking group to find ways of working more closely with potential partners, or to tackle more generic business issues with those from outside your sector. Or perhaps you simply want to overcome a silo mentality in your own firm and encourage greater cooperation internally in pursuit of learning across teams and a streamlined service for clients.
Whichever route you choose, what counts is having clear boundaries and expectations to inspire confidence from the outset.
Once trust is in place, there is the potential for open communication and here the distinction between transactional and collaborative attitudes is perhaps most evident. Transactional relationships, a place where everyone is seeking a sale rather than looking to share, can be a shallow pond.
To collaborate successfully, it’s important to get to know people first. Those connections don’t thrive when we’re simply focused on the execution of a task, they happen when we relax and disclose things about ourselves and tease out the things we have in common, which brings us back to the importance of having an environment of trust where such interactions can thrive. Such relationships provide the foundation for real gains in ongoing networking and collaboration, through the enhanced and open communication it engenders.
As Blaser Mills Law partner Hiren Gandhi explains: “When there’s an openness to sharing ideas and information, it helps you see that you’re not the only one facing challenges, and the problems you have aren’t unique. To understand how others are dealing with things, hearing their different perspective, means you’re not doing it alone.”
Building deeper relationships may also help in tackling one of the big challenges facing the sector - people. As Andrew Allen from chartered accountants PKF Francis Clark, who compile LawNet’s annual financial benchmarking survey, says: “Recruitment and retention remains the leading concern of law firms at present. Demand for services remains strong and it is most commonly the challenge of delivering the work which exercises firms rather than winning it in the first place.”
Having open conversations can help identify future candidates, as you get to know the person, not the CV, and by creating interesting opportunities for staff through collaborative activities, you can support retention. As one of our young lawyers said after spending two days at our annual conference: “I gained so much, not just in learning from the guest speakers, but also from meeting such a range of people. Every person I spoke to was very supportive and encouraging.”
Using collaboration as a force for ideation and innovation can be hugely powerful. The legendary Wintel Alliance, a collaboration between Microsoft and Intel at the dawn of personal computing, led to an affordable computer eventually being found in almost every American home.
Hiren Gandhi of Blaser Mills reflecting on why his firm decided to join LawNet explains: “What we try to avoid is an echo chamber where our internal management group is just talking to each other, nodding heads and sharing the same ideas. We’re always looking to get voices from the outside and get new ideas into the firm.”
One route for that is a forum programme we run specifically for collaboration and learning. This brings together different interest groups, with one for leaders, another for marketing and business development, one for risk management, and so on. Participants hear from expert guests, getting the chance to talk about their challenges, experiences and ideas, as well as their wider strategic thinking, with each discussion documented and translated into learning outcomes to share among all members. As member Kathryn Paisley of Rix and Kay explains: “It’s good business practice: having these conversations with others feeds into our own thinking and strategy.”
Participants are exposed to new ideas, but equally can use the forum to validate their own decisions and strategies by listening to how others approach similar challenges and opportunities. As another member said in our annual surveying: “The various forums for discussion are invaluable as regular benchmarking exercises.”
This group approach to innovation can work on a global scale too. Our members are automatically part of the Eurojuris International network, which enables them to share and learn across borders. “For a small firm like us, it means we have opportunities for developing international links without having to be a huge firm with branch offices around the world,” says Claire Charman, a director with Stamp Jackson and Procter in Hull.
The value of cross-border sharing is evident at all levels. Sophie Hearle of Ashtons Legal is president of Jurismus, the group for young lawyers in Eurojuris International, and she explains: “There are lots of really innovative operational and management strategies being implemented by firms, in areas such as agile working, billing practices and client retention. Being part of Jurismus enables young lawyers to be exposed to this through the events we hold. These lawyers are the future leaders of their law firms and enabling their involvement is a worthwhile investment by the law firms as it is going to help spark and generate ideas to keep the firms operating successfully in the long term.”
Exercising critical thinking and laying your ideas open to critique is another fundamental of collaboration, which enables a more holistic view of the issue at hand, as everybody will share different approaches drawing on their individual experience and areas of expertise.
And while you may feel exposed when sharing ideas or problems, being open to the help of others can make us more agile and step beyond obvious solutions. That sense of agility is essential in this fast-moving world where we may need to pivot without warning. The pandemic is a world changing example, but since then we have witnessed further significant disruption with the conflict in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis and the current economic vulnerability in world markets. Also, running alongside are the changes and adaptations being demanded by technology and shifting consumer and business behaviour.
It may take some practice to be open up to collaborative innovation and it can help to operate in some form of structure. We found our members valued being exposed to techniques such as Design Thinking, which uses observation, insights and experimentation to drive innovation to create client-focused solutions. This has seen our firms create some interesting outcomes, such as modifying the client journey during the divorce process to alleviate its inherently stressful nature and, thereby, improve the overall experience for clients.
Being open to review by others can lead to greater insights as you are likely to be forced to seek out finer details, which can help in rationalising or communicating ideas within your own firm, as you are compelled to form a stronger argument.
Taken together, these building blocks can create a powerful cultural foundation for collaboration and for those who embrace the approach, there is no going back. It is a transformative style of networking that moves from the transactional to become a strategic lynchpin in the way you do business.
It delivers new ideas and innovation, it creates new relationships and builds goodwill and it builds profile while building trust. All of which can help enhance reputation, by demonstrating your commitment to working with others to achieve common goals, while gaining access to a wealth of knowledge and resources to help you and your firm succeed.
Chris Marston is the chief executive of LawNet Limited