By Gary Holstein

Much of the work of law is performed in teams whether they are de facto, virtual or clearly designated.  The performance of the teams that I have observed over my many years of working with law firms varies greatly from highly functioning to really dismal. That observation provokes the question of why the variance and what is the significance to the firm.

The level of team performance directly impacts the client experience, the job satisfaction of the staff and shareholders, and the profitably of the firm. There is a clear correlation between the client experience in the firm and the percent of new business that is referred by clients.  Since almost every person in the firm, as a team member, has some degree of contact with the client they then have some influence on how that client feels about the whole experience.  Clients who feel positively about the  overall experience refer friends, family and acquaintances and those that don’t feel good about their experience may even dissuade people from using the firm.

If the team is functionally well, generally you have a more satisfied staff, fewer errors and lower shareholder angst. This results in better attitudes (which enhances client experience), less turnover and higher levels of productivity, which goes directly to the bottom line profits (unless other expenses are out of line). You can easily measure your firm’s productivity by dividing total revenue by the number of full time employees. It is a great metric to watch from year to year as the better the productivity usually the higher the profitability of the firm. Try it for the last three years and see if there is a trend!

The genesis for me to write this article was a piece in the New York Times magazine on February 28, 2016, entitled “Group Study”. It highlighted the results of an effort at Google called “Project Aristotle” designed to find out what patterns, if any, are indicators that work groups will perform well.  Clearly, there has been much excellent research on work teams over the last 50 years, but this study identified the quantity and nature of the secret ingredients.

Prior research has told us that work groups need to go through a series of processes such as “norming, storming, forming and performing” before they function well. That is true, but does not always raise the odds that a team will perform well as they go through these development iterations. If absent, however, they can serve as an indicator as to why a team is not performing well.

Similarly, a study by McKinsey found characteristics that identify a high performing team as follows:

  • Defined performance objectives…defined by whole team.
  • Defined roles/responsibilities…within the team.
  • Commitment to quality work and trust.
  • Belief in an equitable distribution of work.
  • Clear norms on meeting process.
  • Team member development…training, new skills, etc.
  • Fun and humor…put it all in perspective.
  • Methodology for handling conflicts.

This helps to identify what might not be working and indicates some levers to pull to fix it, but still does not identify the specific patterns that are common to teams that really function well consistently.

Often I have seen teams with an individual member that does not carry his or her weight in quantity or quality or that is just way below others in skills or attitude. Those obvious problems must fall under the “FOR” doctrine….Fix or Replace…do not tolerate.  Sometimes this is difficult for attorneys because as Mark Powers, the president of Atticus, Inc., says, “Attorneys often don’t hire employees as much as adopt them.” If you want to build really high performing teams, those problem individuals cannot remain a part of the status quo.

Google analyzes data better that most companies in the world and they did a really good job of identifying what patterns actually make a difference in high performing teams.  It is not having only the brightest or most motivated people on each team, although that would be easy to believe. It is not having a strong leader or great friendships among the members.

They found that the key magic ingredients could really be distilled into two concepts: well developed, “right” norms and a high level of social sensitivity. These factors raise work groups’ collective intelligence and overall performance.

The norms need to be the clearly defined, mostly unwritten ways that the teammates treat one another:

  • Does everyone have the right to be heard?
  • Does leadership shift according to topic knowledge?
  • Does the team read and care about others’ feelings and attitudes?

As the article states regarding high performing teams, “They (teammates) are skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expression and non-verbal clues.”  The norms do need to make people feel included and valued…it leads to commitment not just compliance.

The team must genuinely feel that it is psychologically safe to take some risks, speak their mind and not pay a penalty for voicing their thoughts. I once worked on a dysfunctional team where the team leader would often say, “Think what you want, but if you want to be smart, do it this way.” That is the converse of how to build a high performance team!

The last question is; how do you improve the collective intelligence and performance of an existing team in your firm?  A good first start might be to conduct a Confidential Staff Evaluation survey that is available through Atticus, which may provide you some insights into how your existing team feels about some of these issues. It is imperative that you learn how people really feel about the environment so you can direct efforts accordingly.

Secondly, it would be most helpful to have a lunch and learn with your team(s) after the survey results to have them re-work the norms and discuss the safety in the group. Be aware that if you do not have a firm mission statement and clearly identified and understood firm values, this process will be much more difficult.

This effort may require several sessions as the norms cannot be imposed, but must be designed and believed by the whole work team. Only by addressing the need to change the norms and protect the safety of the group will you move toward the magical results of a truly high performance team. This may prove to be the most potent way to enhance the client experience, retain staff, lower your angst and increase your profitability and it doesn’t require a magic wand!

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