Can high performance teams work in a law firm? The concept of a high performance team includes the release of control to the team. That means that recognition for success or failure is at the team level, never at the individual level. So, for example, if there was a very big or complex case the recognition would go to the team that worked on it. If there were any individual recognition it would be from the team to a team member for team participation. It is easy to spot the style of the business. If the leadership talks about individuals (their skills or their accomplishments) the firm is probably a skill based system. If, on the other hand, the leadership talks about the accomplishments of the firm or the team the firm is probably set up as a high performance team.
What we see at most law firms is that the business has an attorney as the leader and he or she is focused on their skill. Their business process or style would be based on their skill and the people they hire would be based on skill. That part is fine but once that skill becomes part of the Firm, they either become part of a team or they become recognized as a skill. In a high performance organization they become a contributor to a team and in a skill based organization they become an individual skill. This is a subtle difference and a difference that is hard to see.
When setting up a high performance organization there are concerns about size when you start to talk about teams. A viable team is 5 or more people, preferably around ten. The team effectiveness increases as the team grows from 5 to around 20. After 20 people in the team the effectiveness again drops. If you have a law firm with less than 25 staff then you have one team, but the principles still apply. Establish a vision for the law firm, a mission for each team and establish clear expectations.
The starting point for a high performance organization is strategic planning and the development of the vision. When we start working with a firm we look for the vision statement and the strategic plan. We then try to match the skills and tools to that plan. We often find a wonderful set of words that do not match what people are doing. The reality is that the vast majority of people in your firm are doing regular work, simply trying to do their best in an uncertain and stressful environment. What is so often absent is simply any vision of where the organization is going (nothing fancy, just something that’s clear), and leadership that has a passion for that vision. They get so caught up in the day to day challenges that they forget they have a team.
So step one is to define what your vision is and then translate that vision for your staff with clear expectations. Everyone needs to be on the same path. Once the vision is clear you can apply the principles of a high performance team. The team has autonomy, each staff member knows their responsibility, the level of authority they have and their mission. The work culture is well defined, the expected work traits are defined, the roles of each team member are known and everyone is working on the same goal. At this point it makes no difference if you have a single team representing the entire firm or several teams.
Based on what we have seen over the last ten years, a law firm with up to 5 members seems to work well as a pure skill based unit. A law firm of 5 to 10 members and there are benefits from implementing high performance team principles. A law firm greater that ten members and the high performance team win every time.