In our discussions over the last few years about the future of the law firm, the one thing that has become abundantly clear is that for lawyers and firms to be successful, they will have to learn to collaborate effectively and efficiently. In her book, Heidi Gardner calls this “Smart Collaboration.” I had the chance to see Gardner present at the CLOC conference in February, and recently finished her book, and I can’t recommend it enough – for anyone in professional services looking to be successful over the next ten years, this is a must-read.

Gardner looks at collaboration from a few distinct viewpoints, and makes the case for it in a variety of ways. The one that strikes me initially is her final chapter, in which she discusses collaboration from the point of view of the client. Clients are deeply committed to the idea of collaboration, but obviously, they want to make sure that they’re paying for good value. Not surprisingly, collaboration is good for both the firm and the client. I’m not going to go into the reasons why your firm should be investing in the idea of smart collaboration (think better success in the war for talent/clients; doing higher value work more efficiently and effectively; being a differentiator, etc.) but instead, I want to look at the reasons why collaboration adds value for your clients, and specifically, how members of a law firm network can use their membership to effectively communicate this value and enhance their collaborative skills. 

Collaboration gives you a network of expertise

This should come as no surprise:

Business today is far more complex, more dispersed, and more global than ever before. As a result, companies can no longer rely on the advice of just one adviser with one specific area of expertise and a single frame of reference. Even as business crosses more and more borders, the laws, regulations, and cultural norms within those borders stubbornly persist, and a practice that’s legal and acceptable in one country may not be in another. That fact alone puts a premium on collaboration.”

That reasoning is the driver for many firms to seek out a law firm network in the first place – they want to remain independent, but have the ability to service their clients across those borders in a way that is effective and efficient. Of course, that service is more than simply joining a network and putting their name in a directory (as all law firm networks would agree). It’s about supporting a much more dynamic and collaborative process that facilitates the ability for multiple lawyers to work together to best serve the needs of their clients.

Gardner emphasizes that it’s not just large, multinational corporations with these needs, but also mid-sized and smaller companies, who value collaboration because their own operations are more streamlined. That is often the sweet spot for firms that belong to law firm networks, so focusing on the ability to collaborate, and finding ways to do so effectively and efficiently is an essential way to leverage your firm’s network membership for the benefit of your clients.

Collaboration gives clients a deeper understanding of their own business

It is generally hoped that as lawyers become better versed within a client’s industry or sector, that they will use that institutional knowledge for the benefit of their client. Says Gardner:

If you have colleagues who are advising in other parts of their organization and your team shares business intelligence with each other – that latter premise is, sadly, not a given in many busy teams – then you can use that information to enlighten your clients about important issues inside their own company.”

Further:

Providing sectoral knowledge is another way your internal collaborative skills can work to great advantage…’If you can tell me just one thing that my competitor is doing better than we are,’ said an executive recently on a panel, ‘then I’ll give you all the time in the world.'”

Effectively engaging in your law firm network is an excellent way to build this organizational AND sectoral knowledge. As you implement effective collaboration tools and identify where you and other members are working with the same clients, and in the same sectors, sharing that information with each other can be used to add value to each of your client relationships in a way that can’t be underestimated. Developing the sharing network within industries is a bit more straightforward within a network, while the overlapping client relationships takes a bit more finesse, but both are worthwhile endeavors that will ultimately lead to a stronger client relationship.

How to do this? Start with two ideas:

  • The majority of networks have either practice or industry specific groups. Get involved in those, and engage fully with  your peers to share information. Remember! This is not just about the outflow of information so that you can tell people about your practice and jurisdiction. This is about consuming information from other industries as well, because you want to use that to benefit your own clients.
  • Identify the jurisdictions/sectors where you do the most business, and reach out to the fellow member firms that are in your law firm network. Work with them to develop a plan to get to know each other better, not just at the level of firm contacts, but also deeper within the firm. Don’t be afraid to share client lists, to see where there may be overlap (obviously getting permission where there are ethical restrictions).

Collaboration enables Global Reach

Gardner talks about three opportunities under this heading, which law firm networks are already engaging in with ease:

First, global reach means multinational projects and deals. This is pretty straightforward: The client needs help in three countries at once on the same project, and counts on you to provide that help seamlessly.”

For network members, this should be “seamless,” because you have worked to develop strong relationships with the members throughout your network, and you know the level of expertise and ability that is required. You also have the administrative assistance and oversight of your network as a backup to assist you in managing the project so that your client’s needs are met. If you don’t feel confident in this ability, identify what those reasons may be, what the barriers are for you for better collaboration, and start picking away at those.

Second, global reach means helping a client with a country-specific project where it lacks sufficient capacity. Your collaborative skills give that client the convenience and assurance that comes with having a trusted contact in that country who has an insider’s perspective on issues that would otherwise be opaque.”

This is the exact mandate of a law firm network, and the premise on which the majority of networks were founded – the ability of a lawyer to refer their client to a lawyer in another jurisdiction with confidence. The relationships that you have developed and fostered through careful and rigorous work in your network support this. If you don’t have this confidence in your fellow members, look carefully at your current engagement in the organization – how many conferences have you attended? Are you active in the practice or industry groups? Are there other volunteer/leadership opportunities that would enable you to get to know people better? Are you meeting with local firms when traveling to their cities? It’s essential to take ownership of developing the relationships within any law firm network that you join.

Global reach also comprises those companies that don’t yet cross borders, and may never intend to. I interviewed one client in Brazil who runs an energy business. He told me, ‘I expect my adviser to say, “Here are some problems we’ve become aware of because our African practice partner has seen it there, and it may be relevant to a Latin American transaction.” That’s extremely valuable to us.'”

Because of the work that lawyers and their firms do as members of a network, they are getting together and having these types of anecdotal and formal conversations at and in between association conferences. That enables them to offer that additional value to clients because they are active participants in their network. Again, consuming content from your network is key here – there is a lot of content available out there, so it can easily become overwhelming. Work with your association administration to help narrow down the focus to those jurisdictions and/or industries and sectors that are most valuable to you in terms of deliverables for your clients.

Peer collaboration signals your broader collaborative capacity

Gardner says:

You may not realize it, but clients view your interactions (or lack of them) with your own colleagues as a signal of whether you’re willing and able to collaborate more generally…This is important for at least two major reasons:

  • They need confidence that you’ll be an effective thought partner and low-friction technical adviser for their internal staff.
  • They need advisers to work seamlessly with other firms.”

As a member of a law firm network, you can demonstrate your ability and willingness to do this because of your network membership. By participating in the referral process, overseeing multijurisdicitional referrals, and identifying opportunities to pitch for new work with other firms and lawyers, you have shown your client the ability to think creatively and that you’re able to work with other firms.

Collaboration leads to consistency in service levels

This is a unique one for the law firm network. Gardner points out that clients often lament a lack of consistency across the customer experience, and law firm networks are predisposed to want to meet a high level of consistency. The reason for this is that with many multinational law firms, who have a strong brand, there may be some offices that don’t quite meet the standards of the overall firm. But since they have the brand to fall back on, they can squeak by. But in a law firm network, if a firm doesn’t meet the standards of the network and the other member firms, they will first stop receiving any other work from member firms, and subsequently be removed from membership. So they always must be striving to do their best on each matter that they undertake for a fellow network member. Collaboration within a law firm network truly does lead to consistency in service levels.

Collaboration fosters responsiveness

Gardner’s take on this value point is that clients need answers very quickly in a world that is moving ever faster. And often, when they call their lawyer, they may need an answer to a question immediately, or at least efficiently, and not want one that requires their lawyer to have to research and invest time in getting up to speed on. To do this effectively and efficiently, that means lawyers must know who to call on various issues, and be able to get a fast, effective response from them. Again, active participation in your law firm network will give you the institutional knowledge that you need to know who to call when a client has a question that you don’t have the answer to at your fingertips. It can be tempting to want to answer it yourself, but Gardner assures us that:

the savvy client doesn’t necessarily expect you, as an individual, to have all the answers all the time. But he or she does expect you to have the necessary depth and breadth of understanding to serve as the first contact, and to ferret out the expert fast.”

Because networks are often quite large, this can be a challenging ask – you may have enough difficulty trying to keep straight what all of your partners’ expertise is. This is where strong administrative oversight comes in. You can call your network executives and find out from them quickly and efficiently who the right expert in the right place is.

Collaboration builds strong bonds

Gardner ends on this point, which is another value proposition that will come as no surprise to law firm network members. The more you collaborate, the more productive and powerful your relationships are. This is also a marketing tool for your firm, as you showcase your firm’s ability to be collaborative through its network membership:

Having multiple smart people available to your client contacts [through your network membership] can be a big deal for them. It conveys, first and foremost, that you value the relationship…Meanwhile, those people you are deploying on the client’s behalf are giving great advice – thanks to your collaborative prowess – and helping that client rest easier.”

Even in situations where you are the lawyer who is sending out the work, rather than seeing an incoming referral, you’re getting value out of your network membership, because you’re strengthening the relationship you have with your client through collaboration, and you’re giving them peace of mind that will build the loyalty that encourages them to return to you again and again.

Gardner’s book details a number of suggestions for how to invest in collaboration, how to overcome various barriers, and the business case for it and I highly recommend picking up a copy today!