Building and nurturing team players

  • April 24, 2018
  • James Careless

Are team players born or made? That’s a question that has been dogging managers for centuries. In recent times, psychological research has shown that extroverts tend to gravitate toward teams, while introverts often prefer to work by themselves.

Personality types notwithstanding, teamwork matters at law firms. For law firm managers, getting staff to work well together is key to providing clients with accurate and timely legal representation. This is especially true in complex legal transactions such as mergers and acquisitions, where the combined skills of lawyers specializing in several different areas are needed to make the deals work.

“The very nature of transactional work requires lawyers work closely in teams,” said Karen Dunn Skinner, co-founder and CEO of Gimbal Canada Inc., a law practice improvement consultancy based in Montreal that serves law firms and in-house legal teams across North America. “Those lawyers who do this well, who collaborate effectively, are better able to manage and mitigate risk to their clients, and so tend to be more successful,” she said.

As a company whose LeanLegal training workshops help law firms build and nurture team players, Gimbal Canada knows the value of teamwork. Benefits include:

  • Better collaboration, and an improved understanding of the bigger picture from the client's perspective. “This can result in better cross-selling through an improved ability to identify opportunities for colleagues to add value to the client's business and operations,” said Skinner.
  • Better transparency, plus improved workflow and project management through a more thoughtful and effective allocation of work to the right people, with the right skills, at the right time and cost.
  • Providing the firm leadership with an accurate Big Picture overview of operations that “yields a better approach to service delivery, efficiency, productivity, and, ultimately, profitability,” Skinner noted.

The biggest pay-off is “happier clients who send more of their legal work to you, and who, through word of mouth, help generate new business from new clients,” she said.

Simon Kent is the founder of Kent Employment Law, a boutique employment law firm with offices in Vancouver, Kelowna, and Victoria – and a believer effective team-building.

Kent says building legal team players leads to a fairer and more manageable distribution of work across the firm, encourages lawyers to share knowledge and learn from each other, and improves employee satisfaction and retention. “People are happier and less stressed when they know that they are not in it alone and that someone has their back,” he said.

As well, law firms that build and nurture in-house teams create “a win-win for lawyers and clients in terms of ensuring that work gets done efficiently and effectively,” Kent said. “For example, if one team member becomes ill or has to take a leave, his or her teammate can fill in (with a minimal learning curve), which reduces the absent lawyer’s stress and increases the client’s confidence that his or her matter is well taken care of.”

It clearly makes sense for law firm leaders to build and nurture teams in-house. So how can they make this happen without resorting  frequently mocked – and thus unappealing – team-building tactics like trust-falls?

At Ottawa-headquartered Avvōka LLP, a provider of part-time general counsel services to businesses across Canada, leaders foster teamwork through face-to-face meetings and social events, said Andrew Foti, the firm’s founder and principal. “We also seek out lawyers who are inclined to work in teams, and like this approach,” Foti said. “But we don’t go out and do high ropes courses, or anything that extreme.”

Kent Employment Law uses Avvōka’s approach to foster team spirit: it holds weekly “lunch-time lawyer drop-in” sessions where staff can discuss file issues, the firm hosts monthly sushi lunches, and an internal staff committee organizes regular social gatherings. “Examples of such events include our annual attendance at a Vancouver Canadians baseball game – which we combine with a firm give-back to a local charity doing work we believe in; our annual summer retreat to B.C.’s Interior so that team members in our various offices can connect; our annual Halloween costume party and karaoke outing; our annual office Christmas tree-trimming event; and various firm-sponsored social outings to the skating rink or bowling alley,” said Kent.

 This idea of building teams through meetings and social interactions has also been adopted by Stewart McKelvey, a law firm which has six offices throughout Atlantic Canada. In this case, the teams being organized by Paul Saunders, the firm’s first Practice Innovation Partner, are being put together to address issues such as Stewart McKelvey’s process improvements and pricing strategies.

 “We build teams around the problems we’re trying to solve,” said Saunders. These teams include everyone from paralegals and law clerks to associate lawyers, partners and clients, in a bid to develop well-rounded solutions that are rooted in business reality. “Having diverse teams, and letting them take the lead in devising innovative solutions to problems, also increases the level of buy-in to new approaches,” he said. “This improves the chances of success.”

In addition to these tactics and the LeanLegal workshops offered by Gimbal Canada, law leaders can build in-firm team success through the most basic of motivations: Money.

 “Compensation structures or other recognition can reward attorneys for building teams and helping other lawyers advance,” advised Grover Cleveland,  the author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer, and founder of the consulting firm Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks. “Firms can highlight the positive results from effective teamwork,” Cleveland added, “such as kudos from clients. And firms can provide training to help lawyers enhance their skills at delegating, supervising, and building effective teams.”

The bottom line: Fostering teamwork is a smart strategy for any law leader. To make it happen at your firm, “the first step is to engage your lawyers and support staff in a discussion to invite their ideas for team-building,” said Kent. “By involving people in the team-building process from the outset, you let them know that their views matter, which in turn increases ongoing engagement and the chance that the strategies you implement will be successful.”

James Careless is a frequent contributor to PracticeLink.