Forum Magazine Exclusive: The Case for Smart Collaboration

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Forum Magazine, Law Firms, Legal Innovation


Law firms face a serious conundrum, according to an article in the new issue of Forum magazine.

Their clients increasingly need them to help solve complex problems, ranging from cybersecurity to global trade issues, that only teams of multidisciplinary experts can tackle. Yet, most law firms have carved up their highly specialized, professional experts into narrowly defined practice areas, and collaborating across these silos is often messy, risky and costly, says the author, Heidi Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, a Harvard lecturer on Law and faculty chair for some of HLS’s executive education programs.

These two competing trends — complexity of business problems and increased specialization — make collaboration critical to the strategic growth, profitability and sustainability of a firm, she reports.

Author Heidi Gardner, Harvard Law

Simply put, smart collaboration is not optional; integrating the firms’ greatest asset, the expertise of their lawyers, to deliver innovative solutions to clients’ thorniest problems is essential. But unless you know why you’re collaborating and how to do it effectively, it may not be smart at all. So before we move on, let’s clear up some confusion. Smart collaboration is different from delegation, sequential teamwork and cross-selling. Clients hate cross-selling, the legal equivalent of “do you want fries with that?” While collaboration may not involve direct, face-to-face work, it does require repeated interactions that, over time, allow the creative recombination of different people’s information, perspectives and expertise.


Even as partners recognize the need for greater collaboration in their firm to drive revenues and growth, their intellectual buy-in often doesn’t translate to behavioral change. Why? Oftentimes because they distrust the competence or character of their own colleagues, or fail to understand the full range of their firm’s potential offerings. Convincing them to collaborate requires hard, data-based evidence about the possible upsides — and about the risk of failing to collaborate.

Gardner says her research shows that when firms get collaboration right — that is, do complex work for clients that spans practices and offices within the firm — they earn higher margins, inspire greater client loyalty, gain access to more lucrative clients and attract more cutting-edge work. This form of integrated client service that often crosses practice groups and other silos is what I mean by “smart collaboration,” and it’s the kind of client service that leads to the benefits detailed here.

You can read the full article in the new issue of Forum magazine.