Teamwork and collaboration among lawyers are often driven by the same motivations that bring other professionals together for a collaborative effort: the existence of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, or as it is known by its business-world acronym, ‘VUCA’.

As our client base globalizes and the need arises to address increasingly complex regulatory, economic, technological, and environmental demands, traditional notions of in-house problem-solving—despite having highly knowledgeable lawyers on staff—might not be sufficient to satisfy client demands as well as certain ethical considerations. Collaboration, both across town and across borders, is becoming more commonplace. We will examine how this phenomenon squares with the ‘time-honored’ concept of fierce competition.

Mitigating Difficulties

Overcoming VUCA in the practice of law means quashing or at least mitigating those troublesome circumstances. Following traditional practice techniques may not adequately respond to those challenges nor achieve the desired outcome. Part of the requisite change in strategy is to collaborate with another lawyer or law firm whose geographical location, expertise, or prior experience may lend itself to solving your problem. No firm can possibly have subject matter experts in every field that your clients may require representation in, and therefore, maintaining a healthy relationship with domain specialists becomes a matter of practicality.

Value-added Benefits

Research has shown that client loyalty is actually enhanced when lawyers arrange a collaboration with their non-firm colleagues, and such marshaling of knowledge and experience resources tends to yield both intellectual as well as financial benefit for the firm that reaches out to a trusted peer. Clearly, when it comes to collective expertise, the sum of the parts becomes invaluable.

Importantly, the client must be made aware that there are potentially added costs incurred for such a coordinated effort to represent them. Of course, Professional Responsibility considerations require full disclosure of the same by both attorneys. Outsourcing certain procedures or phases of litigation, transactional work, IP practice or other specialties, also allows the referring attorney to concentrate on that area of law that he or she knows best while at the same time retaining their client who has come to trust them with various other legal matters. Particularly in the era of a global legal landscape, clients are much more understanding of the need for numerous legal matters to be handled cross-border, and who better to rely upon for recommendation in a foreign jurisdiction than your own lawyer? And, who better to serve as the nexus between that heretofore unknown practitioner and the client?


So, if logic—and practice pragmatism—both argue so strongly in favor of collaboration, why is the legal profession in particular reputed to be quite ‘collaboration-phobic’? Perhaps one reason lies in the fact that lawyers are a highly competitive bunch—even protective of their clients—and there is always the risk that the impressive colleague-collaborator might attract the client away from your firm. There is also the notion among some lawyers that—despite only a limited sphere of expertise, even if it is, in fact, a very broad one—they ‘can handle’ whatever comes through the door, and they would never think of being known as anything other than a one-stop shop for their clients. This attitude is shared by those who fear ‘dilution of the firm brand’ which prevents them from collaborating with another firm.

If they would only read the statistics: A study of over 1,000 organizations found that collaborative efforts resulted in a five-fold increase in high performance. At the same time, over 85% of managers cited resistance to collaboration as a cause of project failure. Yet, the reluctance to collaborate between firms persists.

An Outdated Law Firm Culture

It is not just competition between firms that inhibits collaboration; strangely, resistance to collaboration can exist even between departments within the same firm. Some partners and department heads are known to pressure their associates to meet an impossible learning curve for a new practice area, lest another partner outshines them, making for a prime example of how the dog-eat-dog reputation of lawyers might be grounded in a kernel of truth. The thinking is that collaboration might weaken accountability and detract from hardened goal-oriented ambition.

A Harvard Law School study found that such ‘silos’ within departments, rather than driving profitability, in fact, result in a ‘messy, risky and costly’ legal culture that is hard to justify in terms of profitability or serving clients’ best interests.

Breaking Down Barriers

Along with being competitive, lawyers also have in their nature a drive to be problem-solvers and, at the end of the day, pragmatists. For those reasons, resistance to change in the arena of collaboration is—by necessity—giving way to the new reality. As we noted above, with the emergence of the global legal service industry comes the need for knowledge transfer and client sharing as strategic practice assets. Shared skills and expertise, whether required within a jurisdiction or cross-border, demands that the legal profession get on board with the practice tool of collaboration.

Executive Summary

The Issue

How to evoke change in a legal profession that still largely eschews collaboration.

The Gravamen

The natural competition that exists between lawyers and within law firms must be channeled in a way to address the new global-client and multi-need client reality.

The Path Forward

Collaboration must come to be seen as a significant benefit rather than a threat to one’s practice or ego.


1. Building Relationships:

Viewing one’s fellow practitioners as colleagues, and not just competitors, is a good start to building the relationships you may very well need to reach out to in order to better serve your clients.

2. Build Your Own Reputation:

Collaboration is a two-way street, and just as you know who to call upon as an SME in a particular matter, you must also be on the radar of your erstwhile ‘competitors’ when they need your own expertise.

3. Understand the Upside:

Be practical and consider the financial as well as knowledge-sharing benefits that collaboration has to offer.

4. Professional Responsibility:

Before collaborating with a colleague, make sure that both you and the colleague have fully disclosed all required financial and practice disclosures to the client.

Further Reading:


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