Most lawyers I know value hierarchies. It starts with their undergraduate education. Lawyers were the students who competed to get into the best schools. The hierarchy, of course, was school rankings. Of course, not everyone got into the best schools (I’m skipping what “best” means; for this purpose it means ranked higher). But, they generally went with the best combination that available funds and educational performance could buy.
Once they were in school, these students competed to rank high in the next hierarchy: grades. I have not met many lawyers who came out of college with a grade point in the middle to the bottom of the pack. They repeated the process when taking the LSAT. A mediocre LSAT score wouldn’t get you into the best law school.
Then, these students went to law school. The competition started over. Students competed to get the top grades and, at least in my day, get on to the most prestigious law journals. All of this was a predicate, of course, to getting the top law job and then making partner or general counsel or attorney general.
In other words, most lawyers built their careers by focusing on the top of the hierarchy and then doing their best to get there. While the saying may be that there isn’t any “I” in “Team,” for lawyers it really means there isn’t any “Team” in “I.” Lawyers learned to climb the hierarchy, not collaborate.
Becoming a Network in a Hierarchical World
I wrote recently (here and here) about how lawyers should take note of Navy SEALs training, because it offers some things that would help lawyers. If you want to excel, look left and right to learn what others do to excel. Look at the Navy SEALs and you will see mental training focusing on excellence.
Navy SEALs also must train to adapt to any situation. In the past, they focused their training at the team or unit level. When walking into a dark building at night, not knowing where the enemy is hiding, how many there are, or what surprises they may have set, being adaptable as a team means the difference between living and dying.
But the nature of warfare changed. Instead of large, monolithic forces, the modern military was confronting fluid networks. Chris Fussell, a former Navy SEAL, recently published an article in the Harvard Business Review about how the Navy SEALs adapted to meet the challenges of modern warfare. They did so by becoming more flexible across the entire Special Operations Forces and by using a less hierarchical structure.
SOF was organized around elite teams. When warfare meant pockets of problems popping up here and there, SOF would send an elite team to each pocket. The pockets weren’t well networked, so the SOF teams did not have to work as a network. The teams shared information, but worked as silos.
Then warfare changed. The enemy organized itself into networks. Social media and other forms of modern communication enabled these networks. The enemy was distributed and could operate through individuals, small units, large units, and combinations of these options. As Fussell describes it:
Threats that could connect with each other in near real-time were forming networks able to outmaneuver the military’s more powerful, but much slower, bureaucratic model. The barrier to entry for an individual joining these networks was simply a cell phone or a YouTube account. Relying on the capabilities of elite small teams was now an insufficient approach.
SOF had to meet this new threat and did so by flattening the hierarchy. SOF reorganized itself to operate as a network. Rather than silos, the SOF teams now work through a “team of teams” concept, sharing information across and within teams. As Fussell describes it:
We took the organizational blinders off and admitted that many of our assumptions about information sharing, leadership, and communication would need to change. Where once information was compartmentalized between small groups, now we pushed the boundaries of sharing as far as we possibly could. Where once units walled themselves off from one another, now our operations centers and ground units became a mix of intelligence civilians, special operators, and coalition partners. Where once our communications happened in a point-to-point fashion that mirrored our org chart, now our day began with a video teleconference where thousands from around the world would hear and share the latest information available. After several years of change, we could apply the force of a global enterprise with the speed and agility of a distributed network.
SOF may have loved hierarchies, but SOF loved defeating the enemy even more and so it changed.
Lawyers Need to Network
In the delivery of legal services, lawyers, like the SOF, are using 20th century approaches to fight 21st century problems. Lawyers like to work in small teams. For example, in law firms lawyers form teams (practice areas) based on substantive specialty. They don’t work as part of a broader solution provider network. Firms have tried to overcome this through ideas such as cross-selling and client-focused groups, but so far they have had very little success.
Most lawyers consider themselves in competition with everyone else for the client’s dollar. They typically don’t build teams that include individuals from multiple substantive areas outside law. (There are a few exceptions, such as individuals trained in canonical law who work in health care practices and economists who work in trade regulation practices.) Some law firms have created virtual teams by industry, with lawyers from various practice groups participating on the team. But, the primary structure of these networks is still the legal specialty, not the clients or industries.
Even when lawyers open the door a few inches to let in other solution-providers, the hierarchy remains. Lawyers like to think of teams as pyramids, with lawyers at the top. Today, most clients need flatter, more flexible and open structures where all team members are treated equally. Do lawyers really think clients (meaning the real clients) care if a lawyer, consultant, accountant, project manager, or someone else solves the problem?
Networking isn’t just another fad. It is a more advanced way of handling some fundamental problems. At one time in the dim past, an outside lawyer could claim to be very familiar with her client and its industry. She could act as something of a generalist across many substantive areas of law. Problems themselves were less complex. They often didn’t involve multi-jurisdictional issues and the problems involved fewer substantive areas of law. Today, even simple problems can cross many jurisdictional and substantive boundaries.
Lawyers address this complexity in one of two basic ways. The first is underkill; the second is overkill.
In the underkill approach, the lawyer simplifies the complexity by ignoring several aspects of the problem. For in-house lawyers, this is called making an informed guess about what things might come back to bite you, or in more technical terms making a risk-based assessment. Outside lawyers seldom engage in underkill.
Overkill is the opposite approach. The lawyer, in-house or outside, pours resources on the problem. The environmental lawyer sends his four page provision to the associate charged with assembling all the pieces, even though there isn’t even a potential environmental issue in sight.
A networking approach can avoid the underkill problem, but you must address the overkill problem by changing incentives. Using a network, the problem owner (e.g., the in-house attorney) can solicit the right help at the right time and service level. In other words, the in-house attorney crowdsources assistance on the problem.
Think of a network that involves multiple law firms connected to the in-house department through a secure social media platform. The in-house lawyer posts the problem and asks the crowd to help solve the problem. The firms participating work on fixed-fee structures, so they don’t have incentives to overkill problems. But, in-house lawyers grade the firms’ performances on crowdsourcing cooperation so the firms have incentives to participate and not ignore requests. Obviously, clients could expand these networks to include professionals other than law firms. By controlling who receives a request, the in-house attorney could avoid an over-inclusive or under-inclusive network for a specific problem.
We have technology readily available that allows us to set up these networks today. The issue here isn’t technology; it is culture. Network approaches already work in other areas, including IT departments. There, programmers use networks to code solutions to business problems. Using a network to “code” (write contract language) for business problems is fairly similar.
Time to Bury the Pyramid
Corporate clients need fast, adaptive networks to help them solve problems. The old, hierarchical process of calling an outside lawyer and waiting for him to assemble a team to answer a question is at odds with today’s nimble business environment. The slow process of moving work around through emails, with one lawyer not knowing what the other is doing, is oddly out of step with a world where everyone can instantaneously carry on conversations with multiple people around the world. Lawyers need to drop the hierarchy and favor the network.