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How collaboration can prevent lawyers becoming irrelevant in the internet age

06 October 2017 - By Michael Smyth

Year on year, the statute books, and the body of case law which accompanies them, grows. This is great news for lawyers whose job it is to interpret those laws and keep businesses safe. Or so you might think. Increasing regulation has forced lawyers towards specialisation in order to keep pace with the changes.

On the other side of the fence, Google has made everything searchable, increasing the willingness of clients to bypass a lawyer to get the advice they need – an option which, in some instances, will be cheaper and speedier. Next will come artificial intelligence which some lawyers fear may replace them completely. However, this just means lawyers need to adapt their working methods: but how?

Is collaboration the answer?

Increasing specialisation means that a client can rarely rely on one lawyer with a bird’s eye view of their business to solve their problems. It is not uncommon for clients’ problems to span different areas of law and even different legal jurisdictions. This means the client must cast their net wider for legal expertise and that can include Google. By engaging four different lawyers or firms to work on discrete parts of their business, the client misses out on having a single mind’s perspective on the business as a whole. The net result could be failing to spot a problem before it arises and inefficient solutions being implemented.

Whilst it may be impractical in today’s business environment to have a ‘single mind’ in the literal sense of the word, a collection of minds is possible. That’s called specialist collaboration.

What is collaboration?

The dictionary defines ‘to collaborate’ as “to work jointly on an activity or project” but I would suggest that is a very simplified definition. A better understanding of collaboration occurs when you understand what collaboration is not:

  • Referring work or cross-selling someone else’s services (e.g. I can’t help you with that aspect but I recommend that you speak to X),
  • Subcontracting part of your services to someone else (e.g. I am not an expert in that area but I can get an opinion from X),
  • Delegating to a junior (e.g. I will get my assistant to research that).

Rather, collaboration requires experts in their fields coming together to solve a problem. Or to put it another way, separate minds working together as a single mind.

But the client won’t pay

We already know that clients bemoan paying their lawyers since we regularly hear that cost is invariably the number one complaint with law firms. But as we have already established, cost isn’t the issue rather a lack of perceived value. Collaboration, when used appropriately with the agreement of the client, adds value to the client’s business because it allows for solutions which no lawyer alone could achieve.

In a survey carried out amongst 79 users of legal services, 35% said they would pay each lawyer’s standard hourly rate when they collaborated, with 47% saying that they would prefer a discounted rate for each lawyer. Of the remaining 18%, most were of the view that it depended on the situation; in other words, if you can deliver value, they will pay for it. So, whilst collaboration will not always be appropriate, recognising when it would be appropriate would add huge value to the client (without diminishing your fees).

Your fees go up

The common misconception with collaboration is that your fees will reduce because you are giving work to someone else. The fear of losing the client is also a concern. However, research by Heidi K Gardner (Smart Collaboration: how professionals and their firms succeed) suggests otherwise. What Gardner found was that in a firm that practised collaboration, revenues triple when two practice groups are involved rather than one. That’s because having more experts involved gives more information about a client’s needs, priorities, and preferences and gave access to more senior decision makers thereby generating more work. Then, if the collaboration approach delivers a better solution, the client is willing to pay more. No longer are your services seen as a commodity which can be replaced by a Google search. In short, collaboration benefits everyone.

How do you collaborate?

It is easy to think that a large firm has all the advantages when it comes to collaboration because they have a breadth of expertise under the same roof. But if you are in a big firm, ask yourself whether it is happening? If the answer is no, the reason is probably because firms aren’t set up to collaborate. To support collaboration, you need to measure lawyers on how well they collaborate, not necessarily how much they bill. Firms need to remove the incentive to hoard work and increase the incentive to collaborate. Appropriately structured compensation models can reinforce this message. Finally, you need to develop the systems and technology to make collaboration second nature; collaboration won’t work if there are barriers in the way.

What about the solo lawyer?

Large firms have immense challenges implementing a collaborative framework because the more people who need to buy into the idea the harder it gets. Solo lawyers don’t have the same challenges, but are faced with the problem of being alone. But that is a challenge easily overcome by finding other lawyers with a similar mindset to you. There is no reason why a team of solo lawyers can’t work together to solve complex client problems; it just needs some leadership and organisation.

So whether you are a big firm, small firm or sole practitioner, unless you find ways to collaborate better then you may find yourself becoming irrelevant in the internet age.

Are you interested in a collaborative approach, particularly as a solo lawyer? Do you have some collaboration stories to share?

This is the final article in a four-part series exploring the themes which emerged from research into how legal services can be delivered more efficiently to meet client needs. This included a survey of 79 legal services users. Michael Smyth is a sole practitioner and director of Approachable Lawyer Ltd. He has worked in private practice for 22 years, six of those in London.


Last updated on the 6th October 2017