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Building Better Teams of Lawyers

Lawyers are increasingly working in teams. Clients often assemble teams of lawyers from multiple firms. Even within the same firm, it is now rare to have one lawyer handle a case solo. In Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg offers a chapter on how to create better functioning teams.

Teams are often dysfunctional. As Duhigg notes, often time teams devolve into ego contests. People rush to claim credit or talk over one another as they seek to establish a pecking order. Many lawyers have healthy egos, so the desire to claim control of the team can be a big challenge for teams of lawyers. Further, poor team dynamics tend to really breed stress.

Bad teams also produce poor results. They create a culture of groupthink. The group cultural norms feel unsafe so creative thinkers stop speaking up and choose conformity. I have been a part of those types of groups myself so Duhigg’s description of poor teams really resonated. I can recall learning at one employer that offering an honest assessment was punished while endorsing the group’s preconceived ideas was rewarded with insider status.

In contrast, a good team dynamic can be energizing. On the best teams people are encouraged to speak up and to expose their vulnerabilities. Good teams create “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.” (Duhigg at 50) In contrast to what many lawyers would assume, “individual intelligence didn’t correlate with team performance. Putting ten smart people in a room didn’t mean they solved problems more intelligently – in fact, those smart people were often outperformed by groups consisting of people who had scored lower on intellect tests, but who still seemed smarter as a group.” (Duhigg at 60).

Duhigg shares that researcher have been able to identify eight crucial factors that managers of successful teams share: they are good coaches; they empower and don’t micromanage; they are interested and concerned with subordinates well being; they are results oriented; they listen and share information; they help subordinates with career development; they have clear vision and strategy; and they have the necessary key technical skills. (Duhigg at 43). There are also two behaviors common to all successful teams:

1. All the members of a good team speak roughly the same amount;
2. Good teams are successful at understanding how other group members feel based upon non-verbal communication. (Duhigg at 60-61)

It struck me that there is a lot of overlap in the skills needed to manage a team and the skills needed to be a great mentor. It also struck me that many of the skills are a challenge for lawyers. We like to be in control and have a tendency to micromanage. Most lawyers come across as too busy to listen or to invest in their teammates careers. Few lawyers are good coaches. Lawyers are often taught to “take control of the room”, especially trial lawyers. Lawyers are seldom encouraged to be vulnerable. Lawyers are often charged with taking emotion out decisions and many are not intuitive about how others are feeling. Lawyers look for weaknesses in ideas and are not often skilled at creating psychological safety for creativity.

In short, creating and managing successful teams engages a set of skills that many lawyers must work to improve. The good news is that Duhigg has given lawyers a roadmap on how to create and manage more successful teams. As clients increasingly demand teams of lawyers, whether inside the same firm or across firms, teamwork is increasing in importance. Now is a good time to consider the ideas in Smarter, Faster, Better to see if you can be a better team leader and team member.

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