Creating a High-Performance Law Firm Through a Culture of Collaboration
January 2013 | Collaboration

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Creating a High-Performance Law Firm Through a Culture of Collaboration

By Rich Goldstein and Ron Bynum

The biggest factor in successful collaboration is relationship.  Relationship is the foundation of accomplishment.  Most of the time, failure to achieve can be traced back to a failure to collaborate, and ultimately, to a relationship failure.  This article explores how to strengthen relationship skills among members of your firm, and how to set up a collaborative environment that produces high-performance results while creating a workplace that all firm members appreciate and enjoy.

To appreciate what’s possible in a collaborative environment, let’s look at the bad workplace behavior that results when we don’t have a collaborative environment:

Bad: People work independently—not as a virtue, but to a fault.  They miss opportunities to use the resources around them, including the strengths and skill sets of their colleagues.  When they are sick, busy, overwhelmed, or distracted, important things don’t get done.

Worse: A lot of energy is wasted on finger-pointing and blaming. People become resigned, and take defensive postures in anticipation of being blamed.

The very worst: People gossip about, conspire against, and undermine each other.  People operate in “survival mode” —they don’t take calculated risks for fear of being ”stoned by the mob.”  In the context of a law firm, people commonly “hedge,” rather than take bold yet reasonable steps for their clients and for the firm.

While it sounds pretty ugly, this type of work environment is actually quite common.  In fact, we refer to this dark picture as business as usual.  A very high percentage of corporate America—including law firms—operates in this business as usual context.

Why do we resist collaborating with our firm colleagues?
The simplest explanation for this is probably our hard-wired survival instinct.  Since our livelihood typically depends on our work-related income, it makes perfect sense that our minds would associate ”surviving” in a job with our survival in general.

Anytime our survival instincts are running the show, our actions and behaviors are largely automatic.  We can be pretty competitive and harsh. The strength of our survival instinct tends to blind us to the full range of consequences of such behavior.

The thing about any automatic behavior is that we cannot do anything different until we notice the pattern and its consequences.  When we notice the already existing, and automatic, business as usual behaviors, AND then create a real sense of safety in our workplace relationships, we have a lot more choice about how to we can operate and cooperate with our colleagues.  Creating such safety is necessary to creating a collaborative culture.

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What is a collaborative culture?
Wherever outstanding results are being achieved, you can count on the presence of something rare and extraordinary: a collaborative environment.  Anytime you find a collaborative work environment, you will undoubtedly find a strong collaborative culture within that company or firm.

A culture is a set of beliefs, behaviors, implicit agreements, and practices that are so prevalent in a group that they are essentially assumed.  Every company and every law firm has a culture.  Unfortunately, the culture of most law firms is some version of—or contains some elements of—the business-as-usual culture described above.  It contains beliefs, behaviors, and practices that support people operating on their own, competing, gossiping about, and undermining each other.  While not spoken directly, the implicit agreements include some version of: “you don’t challenge me about my poor work habits and I won’t challenge you about yours,” etc.

A collaborative culture, however, is a set of beliefs, behaviors, explicit agreements, and practices that support healthy relationships between colleagues, and so support collaboration.

A primary difference, then, is that, in a collaborative culture, there are explicit agreements.  That is, out of a desire to be part of a collaborative culture, the individuals explicitly agree to a certain way of being with each other that supports that collaborative culture.  The secret is that these agreements create enough of a sense of safety that colleagues realize they can "let down their guard," and relax their hard-wired survival instincts for the sake of collaboration.  In the end, they are more relaxed, productive, satisfied, and happy in their work environment.

What explicit agreements are necessary to create a collaborative law firm culture?
The essential nature of explicit agreements is committed, principled partnerships between co-workers/colleagues.   These explicit agreements create the foundation of trust, safety and relationship that disrupts business as usual—and supports a collaborative culture.  These explicit agreements are openly declared, not in some memo, document, or email, but face-to-face.  These agreements are declared between all people that work together, and are appropriate regardless of their relative position at the firm. 

What are the primary agreements that colleagues declare to create a “committed, principled partnership”?

  1. “I agree to stand for your success, publicly and privately.” 

This agreement forms the foundation for a collaborative relationship.  In a business as usual environment, people frequently doubt the intentions of their colleagues.  For example:

When an action is taken by a colleague, you might doubt whether the action is to benefit the team and the company.  Instead, you might consider the action to be for the benefit of the colleague alone, possibly to make others look bad. 

When negative feedback is given by a colleague, you might doubt whether the feedback is being given to help you improve your performance.  Instead, you might wonder whether it is an attempt to make you look bad, undermine you, belittle you, retaliate for something in the past, etc.

However, with a stated agreement to stand for each other’s success, people operate under the assumption that all actions and all communications are intended to support the success of the team and each other.  By making this agreement, we agree to have positive intentions for our colleagues AND assume a positive intention in any of their behaviors and communications.  This is an extremely powerful agreement to create a sense of safety for delivering straight communications that help keep the action moving forward.  In fact, in a collaborative environment, when a person courageously has a “tough” conversation with a colleague, for the sake of the colleague and for the sake of the team, it tends to create more trust and relatedness between them.

  1. “I agree to trust you unconditionally in the domain of our work together.  If I feel I must withdraw my trust, I will personally let you know.”

Too often, we distrust our  colleagues to adequately perform various job-related tasks.  Worse, however, this distrust is unknown to our colleagues.  We harbor it in silence, and just don’t give them work which we would not trust them to complete properly or on time.  In making this declaration, however, you pledge that if you observe or experience something that causes you to lose trust in a colleague, that would cause you to act differently with them, you will immediately bring it to their attention, rather than let it silently interfere with your collaboration.

  1. “If I get triggered, I agree to recover quickly.  If I have a problem with you, I will bring it directly to you.  I will not gossip, undermine, or conspire against you.”

No matter how strong the relationship is, people inevitably get “triggered” (angry, upset, bothered) by the behavior of others.  The key is to recover quickly.  With understanding, most upsets can be let go of quickly.  If our upset festers, we might then bring the issue directly to the person. However, some incidents can cause us to “handle it” in less beneficial ways: we might avoid confronting it and instead gossip with co-workers about it—or worse, actually engage in behavior that undermines the other person.

This agreement, however, establishes a commitment to bring any problem directly to the person.  What is interesting about this agreement—and the consequence of making this agreement a part of the firm culture—is that if you start to gossip to one of your colleagues, they will likely notice you doing so, and suggest to you that you bring your complaint directly to the person you are complaining about! This is the power of creating such a culture—it tends to support itself from within.  Just as the negative business as usual culture tends to support and perpetuate itself, the positivity of collaboration, and your positive behaviors is now the thing that is supported by your colleagues!

  1. “I agree to coach you on your blind spots and to be coached by you.”

In business as usual, people often feel threatened by, and thus resist coaching from—or even “suggestions” by—their coworkers or colleagues. Being open to coaching may be perceived as a weakness.  And conversely, they typically resist making “suggestions” to others, as well, as it is counter to the implicit cultural agreement “you don’t criticize my work and I won’t criticize your work.”

  • Consider, however, that in any business context, sport, or endeavor where performance matters, coaching is present.
  • Also consider that our actions often have an unintended consequence that we don’t see.  Just like the blind spot in an automobile, the rule of human behavioral blind spots is that “I can see yours, but I can’t see my own.” 
  • Accordingly, with the right trust, coaching allows us to see our own blind spots through the feedback of others, and to give feedback that helps them see their blind spots, without fear that our intentions will be misconstrued.

This is another place where synergy is created between the various agreements of a committed, principled partnership.  Agreement #4 to be coachable is strengthened by agreement #1: “I stand for your success….”  Opening ourselves to being coached by others requires us to trust that those offering us coaching have a positive intention for us!

What type of accountability is necessary to maintain the culture of collaboration?

Maintaining these principled, committed partnerships, requires being 100 percent accountable in all such partnerships/relationships.  Most often, our accountability in relationships is more like “50-50.”  What this looks like is, we wait for the other person to do their part before we do our part.  If they fail to do their part, we use their failure as an excuse not to do our part.  In such relationships,  no one is actually accountable for the relationship!

This cannot work in a principled, committed partnership.  Because we are human, we will naturally stray from our agreements at times, or momentarily “fall off the wagon.”  When we do, without full accountability by those around us, our colleagues might “relax” their agreements as well.  And the same is true when we notice our colleagues straying from their commitments.  If we weren’t 100 percent accountable, human nature would dictate that we would probably use their moment of weakness as an excuse to back off of our own.  With 100 percent accountability for the relationships, however, should we notice an inconsistency in the actions or behavior of a colleague, we would maintain our agreements, and talk with them about the inconsistency.

Taking 100 percent accountability for the relationship, then, means giving up waiting for others to perform “their part” before performing your part or keeping your agreements.  It also means honoring your commitments, keeping your word, and communicating openly at the first sign that a commitment might be broken.

What cultural practices are required to support these agreements?
Maintaining a collaborative culture also requires a series of cultural practices.  These cultural practices strengthen the culture, keep the commitments alive, and continuously demonstrate why the agreements and culture are so valuable. The cultural practices help to counteract the tendency to fall into old patterns and negative, or less than optimal, behavior.

Such cultural practices can include:

  • An agreed upon system for making requests of each other to move the actions forward—a system in which colleagues know they have options for responding. (See “Law Firm Leadership: Creating A Culture Where People Do What They Say,” Law Practice Today, August 2012)
  • Listening deeply to colleagues while assuming the positive intent in their communication.
  • Speaking straight—not censoring communications and feedback.
  • Honoring, appreciating and acknowledging each other’s achievements.

A culture of collaboration is built upon a series of agreements that create an intentional relationship—a relationship that supports collaboration by allowing us to assume ‘safety.’ A culture of collaboration allows us to take our attention off of 'survival,' so that we can move the action forward and achieve outstanding results together!

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About the Authors

Rich Goldstein is a registered patent attorney and frequent writer and speaker on law practice management.  He can be reached at 212.656.9100 or

Ron Bynum is a leadership consultant and can be reached at

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