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Norming, performing and adjourning legal teams

05 October 2018 - By Emily Morrow

In my August 2018 LawTalk article, “Forming and storming in legal teams – how to make the most of it”, I discussed the upbeat – but sometimes challenging – process of forming a team and the storming phase of team development. Assuming a legal team successfully moves through these first phases, it can progress into the final three phases of development described by Bruce Tuckman in his 1965 article “Developmental sequence in small groups” (Psychological Bulletin 634(6), 384-399).

The next phases are norming, performing and adjourning/mourning. As with forming and storming, these latter phases often involve predictable group behaviour, new leadership needs, opportunities and challenges.

Norming in legal teams

Ants on a leaf

A senior partner and head of department has announced she will retire in a year, step out of equity and continue on as a consultant. A newly admitted partner and a lateral hire senior associate will take over managing the team which consists of two other lawyers, several legal executives and support staff. The group has gone through some storming after its formation and appears to be settling down. Although the team has agreed upon lines of responsibility and job descriptions, it is still in flux due to personnel changes. It needs to develop some norms.

Norms are the soft guard rails that keep things on track within a group. Although norms typically are not written down, everyone knows they exist so they need to be fair, appropriate and reasonable. Developing norms and ways to live within them is critical work for a team during the norming stage. Typical norms might develop around remote work style preferences, how influence is wielded within the team and how information is shared formally and informally within the team and with others.

In this stage, team members identify their differences (temperamentally and technically), better understand each other’s strengths and gain greater respect for team leaders. Team members may spend more time together outside of work, collaborate increasingly easily and give each other feedback. If a team has clearly articulated goals, team members commit to achieving those and the firm benefits.

Norming is a transitional phase. At times a team will seem to be in the norming stage, only to slip back into storming as new tasks are taken on. Although this can feel like a setback, the process is normal.

A team should avoid getting stuck in the norming stage and focus on moving toward the performing stage. Team leaders should focus on allowing team members to take more responsibility for the team’s success. For example, a retiring partner might task a new partner with the job of leading an effort to update team precedents. If a team seeks to grow its practice, new business development initiatives might be delegated to team members.

The norming stage can be an excellent time to have a team-building event. Although such a gathering might include some technical training, the focus should be on team members learning more about each other, appreciating diversity and better articulating and implementing team norms.

Performing legal teams

At last your team has arrived at the performing phase – the team’s golden era in which it achieves its goals. This should be a financially productive phase for a legal team. Team members will know their jobs, work together well, and team leaders will do more of their own billable work and less management and other non-billable work. The team will cease to be of regular concern to firm management and will be extolled for its virtues.

During the performing stage, team members feel good about the team and work flows smoothly. Member arrivals and departures are absorbed relatively easily. Newcomers are assimilated quickly as others train them into the norms and work of the group. Relatively little seems to derail the team’s success.

Team leaders should now focus on optimal delegation. In a high-performing team, the leader will model excellent delegation skills and team members will be able to handle many types of work. The partner who leads the team will often be the primary “intake” person, meeting with clients and bringing in new instructions. Work will be delegated to skilled team members who produce a high-quality work product for partner final review. This is a time of maximum team efficiency and effectiveness. Team leaders should begin to focus on new goals and areas of work, rather than on overseeing team functioning.

Counterintuitively, this is also the time when leadership should be actively considering succession planning for the team. Partners and management will be well advised to look both internally and externally for the next level of leadership. It may be appropriate to consider resources, opportunities and challenges with the assistance of external advisors.

Non-performing legal teams

What about a legal team that never reaches the performing stage and stalls out in the forming, storming or norming phases? Such teams will be disorganised, rife with internal politicking, lack good leadership, and have low morale, high turnover and poor productivity. Typically, the team leader will be unable or unwilling to correct the problems and management – through the firm’s board, managing partner and/or CEO/GM/firm administrator – will need to become involved.

Interventions can include disbanding and reforming the team, appointing new leadership, providing clearer direction, holding the team accountable for its own success and engaging external advisers. The process should consist of diagnosing the problems, designing tailored solutions, implementing necessary changes and evaluating success regularly.

Should the team adjourn? What about the “mourning”?

Many legal teams continue in the performing stage for many years. They produce well. Leadership and members remain reasonably constant and existing members further develop their skills. This is often a time when leadership and management may take the approach of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Take, for example, a firm’s well-established litigation practice group. Assuming the firm continues to offer litigation services to its clients, the team will probably remain in place indefinitely with ongoing personnel changes. However, depending upon the success of the practice group, the team may divide into sub-groups, in which case the team process will start again. Alternatively, the team may diminish in size which will likely change its dynamics.

Some teams are set up for a particular purpose and once their objectives are achieved, will adjourn in a predictable manner. Alternatively, teams will disband unexpectedly, either as the result of organisational or personnel changes, a merger with another firm and so forth.

When teams adjourn sometimes their members go through a predictable mourning phase. Particularly for team members who have become very comfortable within a team and have developed close working relationships with other team members, the adjourning phase may be challenging. This will be especially true if a team member’s future is somewhat unclear after the organisational changes.

The adjourning phase can be an excellent time for leadership to celebrate the team’s achievements and support team members as they move into new undertakings. It may be appropriate, for example, to have a team retreat to reflect on the team’s accomplishments, recognise team members, and articulate why the team’s work has been important to the firm’s success. Some team members may work together in other contexts within a firm after the team adjourns and this can be an excellent way to set the stage for such collaborations.

The team leader may want to consider providing individual professional coaching support for team members who are struggling with the transition. Doing so can convert a negative, anxiety producing situation into a professional growth opportunity. Successfully winding up the work of a team is as important as successfully forming a team.

So, this completes the “life cycle” of a successful team within a law practice. Although these stages are likely to occur within almost every team, they will present in different ways within each team. The best team leaders tailor what they bring to their leadership style based on the team’s needs. The best team members adjust to, and accommodate, change. Legal teams that successfully navigate each of these stages will prosper. Law offices that invest in team development will reap the rewards of having done so.


Emily Morrow www.emilymorrow.com was a lawyer and senior partner with a large firm in Vermont, United States. She now resides in Auckland and provides tailored consulting services for the legal profession.

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Last updated on the 5th October 2018