Team Design Principles for Law Firms and Law Departments

October 21, 2015

meeting boardroom professionalsLaw firms and law departments have embraced “teams” as a tool for flattening their hierarchical structures, gaining more flexibility, and effectively combining expertise from different departments to solve problems that were presented to group members as projects to be completed.  Important organizational benefits of teams include improved productivity and quality, improved quality of work life for attorneys, lower absenteeism and turnover, increased innovation and improved organizational adaptability and flexibility.  In fact, team management can actually become an organizational core competency that can be leveraged to achieve important strategic objectives such as accelerated development of new practice areas and improved responsiveness to the service requirements of key clients; however, in order for law firm and law department leaders to achieve these benefits they need to grapple with and resolve difficult issues such as how to structure teams and select team members, how much authority and autonomy to delegate to teams, how to motivate team members, and how to make teams accountable for their actions.

Designing and managing effective teams is one of several important topics that are covered in Chapter 25 of Business Transactions Solutions (“Organizational Design and Structure”), which is available on Westlaw.  While the chapter was prepared to provide attorneys with an introduction to organizational design and structure so that they would have a better understanding of the day-to-day environmental influences on their clients, it includes some valuable lessons about teams that can be used by law firms and law departments:

  1. Commonly mentioned categories of teams include informal teams, which are usually formed initially for social purposes among persons with a set of common concerns and interests such as improving working conditions or sharing information on specialized topics; “traditional” teams in the organizational structure such as groups (e.g., “practice groups or departments”) formed to oversee and operate in defined areas with a leader (i.e., a practice leader) assigned by the law firm or legal department who is vested with legitimate power and authority to manage the group; problem-solving teams, which are temporary groups of members drawn from different practice areas who come together to find solutions to issues and problems that cannot be resolved within the standard organizational structure;  leadership teams created at the top of the organizational hierarchy (e.g., the management committee) to collaborate on the development and implementation of organizational goals and related strategies; parallel teams that supplement the normal work processes of the company and typically focus on specific activities and functions that cannot otherwise be handled effectively within the regular organizational structure (e.g., quality improvement teams, productivity improvement groups and employee participation teams); project teams which are organized to focus on a specific activity with the stated goal of creating a one-time output within a fixed time frame; and work teams, which are cross-functional and multi-skilled groups vested with responsibility for transforming various inputs into services (e.g., administrative support, client service, and professional support).
  2. Significant barriers to the collaboration required for a team to achieve the goals for which it was established include large size, diversity and virtual participation.  For example, once the size of the team goes beyond 20 members there appears to be a natural tendency for the level of cooperation to decrease and, as such, affirmative steps must be taken to avert problems and sustain the appropriate level of collaboration as team size increases.  In addition, as team diversity—measured by the proportion of strangers on the team and the level of diversity of background and experience—increases it becomes more likely that the members would cut back on their efforts to collaborate and share knowledge.  Virtual participation allows companies to reduce and control travel and other expenses traditionally associated with face-to-face meetings; however, the greater the reliance on virtual participation the higher the likelihood that cooperation among the virtual team members will decline unless steps have been taken in advance to promote and support a collaborative culture.
  3. Researchers have identified characteristics of effective teams including clear direction and responsibilities, knowledgeable members, reasonable operating procedures, healthy interpersonal relationships, which means that each member understands and accepts the individual values of other members and embraces the diversity as a means for developing stronger and effective teams, sharing successes and failures, and strong external relationships.
  4. Organizational practices associated with effective team activities include the support of senior leadership for collaborative behavior and role modeling of collaboration among members of the senior leadership team; strongly embedded norms of mentoring and coaching within the organizational culture; training for attorneys and support staff in the skills and techniques that are necessary for effective collaboration including guidance on how to build and maintain networking relationships, communications skills and conflict resolution; fostering of a sense of community within the law firm or law department that encourages people to freely and happily share knowledge and information that can be used by teams to effectively pursue their goals and objectives; and management of teams by leaders who are both task- and relationship-oriented and who have been be trained on when and how tasks or relationships should be emphasized as the work of a team unfolds.
  5. Team composition and structure should not be left to chance and leaders should be mindful of certain tried and true lessons for maximizing the chances that a team will successfully achieve the goals and objectives established for it: members with specific training and background relative to the achievement of particular goals and objectives of the team and influence within their regular departments to sell the ideas of the team and access the department resources required for the team to be successful; a material subset of members with preexisting (“heritage”) relationships sufficient to create a foundation for strong collaboration, communication and information sharing; clearly defined roles and responsibilities, tied to specialized expertise, for each team member from the beginning; clear team goals, although the path to be followed to achieve those goals should be left relatively ambiguous in order to promote creativity, collaboration and sharing of ideas; good interpersonal relationships and reasonable operating procedures that promote strong communication, equal participation and shared ownership of both successes and failures arising from the team’s activities; and members with strong abilities to read the emotions of their colleagues and consider and keep track of what they feel, know and believe.
  6. Researchers have argued that teams go through several identifiable stages of development in order to reach the point where they can be effective and successful: forming, which is the initial stage during which team members first get to know one another and the group focuses on evaluating the tasks assigned to the team and establishing group rules for interacting with one another is the stage when team members become acquainted with one another; storming, which emerges once the novelty associated with formation disappears and members begin to jockey for influence over their individual roles and the entire process the team will be following to fulfill task requirements and achieve its goals; norming, which is the stage at which team members focus on identifying and implementing accepted norms and standards of performance with respect to basic yet important questions such as the expected level of quality, the meaning and importance of schedules and deadlines, attendance and participation at meeting and establishment of subgroups within the larger team; performing, which is the stage at which the team is ready to work on its assigned tasks and become productive; and adjournment, which is the point where the activities of the team end for one of several reasons: the tasks assigned to the team have been completed, one or more of the members of the team leave or a decision is made not to move forward any more with pursuit of the assigned tasks.