September 19, 2019 Chair's Column

The Value of Collaboration

By Stephanie A. Scharf

Poet Mattie Stepanek offered great wisdom when she said, “Unity is strength . . . when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” Too often we lawyers go it alone—possibly because that is the default mode of work after getting through law school by our own efforts, or we feel in competition with our colleagues, or for any number of other personal and workplace factors.

In an increasingly specialized and globalized profession, going it alone is not the ideal way to serve our clients or ourselves. Heidi K. Gardner’s 2015 article in Harvard Law School’s The Practice makes the point that “when lawyers do work across specialties, their firms earn higher margins, clients are more loyal, and individual lawyers are able to charge more for the work.”

Collaboration can improve a lawyer’s well-being by breaking down the barriers of isolation, which are so common in our profession. Matters on which lawyers need to collaborate are typically more complex, require knowledge of multiple areas of law and business, and benefit from more creative problem solving. Practicing law is an ongoing learning process, and one of the ways in which we learn is from our colleagues and a broad range of others in and outside our workplace.

We know that collaboration is not always positive and not always efficient. It can be scary, it can be annoying, it can be stressful, and it can take a lot of time. It may not have a payoff. It requires more patience than many of us routinely give to a process. But if done well, collaboration can get tremendous results—results that one person alone could never get on her or his own.

Collaboration can yield many rewards. In the legal profession, collaboration is an effective way for a lawyer to establish herself as a rainmaker. The positive link between collaboration and revenue may be counterintuitive. But rainmakers who collaborate, and share origination credit, can end up with larger books of business than their siloed peers.

Think about it: What is the reputation you would like to have—someone who shares knowledge and contacts, someone who gives back and pays forward, or someone who “you cannot work with because she does not share”?

Between the development of more complex capabilities, the greater possibility of referrals, and the social capital that comes from getting to know one’s colleagues, I believe that the benefits of collaboration greatly outweigh any concern about the downside.

In a profession where women still have difficulty getting selected as first chairs at trial or leads on corporate deals, becoming top rainmakers, or even having their ideas heard in meetings, why not use collaboration to to grow your career and lift others as you climb? Pick one project where another’s viewpoint would be valuable and experiment with collaboration. Your professional stature, your sense of self, and the profession as a whole can reap the benefits.


By Stephanie A. Scharf

Stephanie A. Scharf is a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago and chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.