As early as law school orientation, budding attorneys get their first taste of working in siloes. Don’t share notes, keep your outlines to yourself – sound familiar? However, research from Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession suggests there’s a better way to achieve success in the legal field.

In her book entitled Smart Collaboration, Heidi Gardner, Harvard Law School lecturer and distinguished fellow at the Center, argues that lawyers should check that lone-wolf mentality at the law firm door for maximum benefit to the firm, clients and the attorneys themselves. Gardner lays out data showing that cross-collaboration in law firms yields a level of benefit far greater than anything achieved in a silo. Specifically, the data suggests that, among other benefits, smart collaboration is associated with better financial outcomes and client loyalty and retention.

Presenting her findings at a Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute event earlier this month in New York, Gardner pointed to several emerging trends, including a move toward greater specialization – deep expertise in one area of the law – that almost inevitably creates siloes. At the same time, though, the complexity and connectivity of the world is accelerating, a concept Gardner sums up with the acronym VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Faced with these two realities and to successfully navigate VUCA, it’s incumbent on specialists to come together.

Cross-Collaboration, Not Just Cross-Selling

Collaboration, as outlined by Gardner, describes the coming together of multiple units within a law firm or other type of firm to provide holistic solutions to clients. To be clear, cross-collaboration should not be confused with cross-selling or referrals.

In fact, the chief financial officer of a multi-national corporation she interviewed said the company would be willing to pay more for a collaborative service approach.

“Margins rise with complexity. We know that we’re overpaying when we have service that’s multi-dimensional, but we’re willing to overpay because those are the problems that really keep us up at night,” said Gardner, summarizing the CFO’s point. “And if people are capable… of providing holistic solutions to these really tough problems, that’s where we’re willing to shell out.”

Gardner’s fellow panelist Valerie Radwaner, deputy chair at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, agreed that clients want attorneys who aren’t just experts but who “are part of a firm that has a cohesive voice.” The firm strives to instill early in new attorneys that they not only must hone their skills but also “learn how to be part of a bigger community.”

See Around Corners

As a client, Tabea Hsi, managing director in the Chief Legal Office of Blackstone, who also joined the panel, expects and appreciates when lawyers look beyond their own area of expertise to fully understand the increasing complexity the organization may face. Professional service providers, including law firms, must be able to “see around corners” and provide proactive solutions.

Hsi drew on the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as an example of a highly complex area that touches nearly all aspects of Blackstone’s business. The company was working with a law firm with deep expertise in data privacy but found the team’s approach reactive and ineffective at managing the projects surrounding GDPR compliance. Hsi switched to a firm that, although not as credentialed in the data privacy field, was able to effectively navigate Blackstone’s project management needs related to GDPR.

Change Versus Tradition

For his part, Suhrid Gajendragadkar, senior partner at McKinsey & Co. and the co-founder and co-leader of McKinsey’s Global Legal Services, who also joined the panel, noted that “tastes and preferences are changing,” which necessitates change for law firms and other professional service providers. He said McKinsey is focused on client teams, which put understanding the client and its needs at the center of service delivery.

White & Case LLP chairman Hugh Verrier, who also joined the discussion, said collaboration is a “cardinal virtue” at the center of the firm’s success.

“If we’re not effectively collaborating, we can’t deliver on the promise of our firm, and that’s a strategic failure,” he said. But Verrier acknowledged the difficulty of recalibrating attorneys – a traditionally individualistic group of professionals – to act and think collectively.

Smart collaboration isn’t easy, Gardner said: it’s costly, risky and time-consuming, and firms should only commit if it really is smart.

An additional point Gardner discussed are disparities in the collaborative efforts of women versus men. The stereotype that women are better collaborators rang true in the research, but only to the extent that women’s networks at law firms tend to be wider. Men’s collaborative networks, though smaller, resulted in more fees earned than women.

The imbalance is not intentional, she said, noting that men actually send more of their referred work to women than men, but the “chunk of work” women get tends to be smaller, she said.

This post was written by Maria Lokshin, client manager, LMLF Strategic Accounts with Thomson Reuters.