Team player or liability?

9 02 2010

After watching the mighty Liverpool FC destroy their Mersyside rivals at football on Saturday (ok, it was an edgy 1-0 win, but let’s not get hung up on the details), my mind drifted to the importance of teamwork. From there it was a small, sideways step to pondering teamwork in law firms.

What role does the heavyweight partner play in the team?

The increasing size and scale of business deals these days means  that more and more areas of commercial law requires law firms to field teams. While once teams were the preserve of M&A and corporate departments, now technology, employment, property, commercial and compliance lawyers (among others) regularly work in teams, and more often than not, cross functional teams. This raises a number of challenges, the first being that confronted by many temporary teams that are pulled together for a specific deal or project, which is that team members are thrown together on an ad hoc basis, and expected to form a high performing unit. In the heat of a deal, team dynamics are often not considered and as a result the roles people play in teams are often not clear.

This can have the effect of having the right technical skills in the team (pensions lawyer? check, TUPE specialist? check) but not the right balance of personalities and working styles. For example, having a team full of great “ideas” people, but no detail-orientated “completer finishers” is likely to challenge a project timetable, whereas too many driven, leader types can lead to fireworks and conflict resolution getting in the way of client needs.  On top of this sub-optimal mix of lawyer ingredients, matters can be further complicated by different reporting lines, and competing time demands from other client (for example a large public sector deal may be the top priority for the commercial partner leading the deal, but just an annoyance to an employment associate who is pushing for partnership on the back of his retail sector employment expertise).

With added pressure to keep costs low, the temptation for many law firms might be to staff up project teams with the cheapest resource that could do the job, to help preserve margins. Aside from the risk of damaging client satisfaction (and many firms are now starting to think about client lifetime value), this approach may ultimately end up racking up higher costs than a carefully picked project team with optimal resourcing.

So what can be done? Much as it would be nice to do a Myers-Briggs team assessment, or a Belbin analysis on team candidates before each deal, and supplement the psychometric testing with an investigation into learning styles and feedback agility, I think we all know that’s not going to happen. What I think is important is that lawyers have the awareness of their team-working characteristics, and also seek to understand that of their peers. This does require some investment both by the firm and the lawyers involved. This type of profiling could for example be carried out on more permanent teams (for example sector teams or practice groups, where lawyers work regularly together), which would get people thinking about team dynamics as well as giving them an awareness of their own tendencies.

As part of the fundamental change that the legal profession is undergoing, this may seem a minor point, but when you consider that these team dynamics are becoming further stretched by cross-cultural and multi-organisation teams, I think effective team working is a crucial transferable skill that lawyers need for the future.