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What happens when you establish and sustain a law firm client team process that breaks all the rules and puts the inmates in charge of the asylum? You learn that the inmates should have been in charge all along.

In January, 2012, having heard the published drumbeat of clients bemoaning their outside counsel's lack of understanding of, and relevance to, their business, one of my longstanding law firm clients embarked on a bold experiment to enrich their relationship with the firm's largest client.

It’s unorthodox, messy, loud, at times chaotic — but it works, and clients love it.
— Chairman of the firm that beta-tested the TeamPath process

Beginning in February, I attempted to document the team's progress through a series of posts to this newsletter:

If you read these posts, you'll learn that the team is 100% opt-in, and 100% self-managed. Team members commit to fulfilling one of a list of defined roles, or define additional roles that we didn't think of. The incredibly good news was that 40 people with very diverse existing responsibilities (lawyers, paralegals, admins, IT, librarians, etc.) opted in to contribute on their own time.

Lesson #1, learned on Day One: People really do want to contribute, and if we get out of their way, they will.

My plan to document progress fell victim to the size and complexity of the team. Unshackled from traditional law firm hierarchy, they were experimenting, learning, growing and evolving much faster than I could keep up with diary entries.

The first two things they had to overcome was the fear of making mistakes, and the habit of waiting for a leader to assign tasks and decree how they wanted them done. However, once it became clear that there was to be no such director ("Dad and the kids," as one client described it) and control, that the team would discuss the challenges they faced, define their goals, and decide how to accomplish them, they quickly embraced and grew into the new freedom.

The firm's chairman is the relationship partner for that huge client, but he recognized the wisdom in not being the team leader, which would have transferred law firm hierarchy to the team and stifled it before it got going. Having him as just another contributor legitimized the principle that the team would make decisions as a group.

Lesson #2: You hired smart people, so let them be smart. Agree on the desired outcome, grant them the necessary autonomy, and trust them to figure out how to achieve it.

They discovered that they had to learn a lot of new skills on the fly, such as how to

  • function as a decision-making team;
  • maximize the value of time spent in team meetings;
  • make decisions;
  • create a continuous learning organization;
  • capture, store and share all the data that the team gathered continuously; 
  • earn access to, and develop a relevant relationship with, executives and counsel within multiple operating companies and business units; and
  • establish and enforce accountability

to name just a few of the early-stage challenges.

Lesson #3: People want to learn and improve, and pursue the core human need “pursuit of mastery.” There’s nothing like a complicated challenge, with no guidelines, to enable it.

The bold, audacious mission the team decided on established that they were engaged in something inherently worthwhile, and energized the team. It turned out that it also energized the client. During a visit to one of the operating companies, after concluding her business with the client, the team leader asked him a question: "What would make you an absolute hero here next year?"

His reply was straightforward. "That's not complicated. We have a new (medical) device we're launching; as it goes, I go." He added a question of his own: "That's an unusual question from outside counsel. Where did it come from?"

She explained that the firm had made a commitment to understand its clients' businesses better, and had established a team to make sure that happened and would be sustained. After she described the what, why and how, he clarified, "You're telling me that 40 people signed on to make me more successful -- on their own time?" She allowed that that was a fair characterization, and he became effusive. "That's fantastic. Count me in. In two weeks, I'll come to your firm and meet with your team and tell them anything they want to know."

Lesson #4: Clients love when you invest in them, and will cooperate enthusiastically.

One challenge that arose immediately was how to integrate team members' various roles: Intelligence GathererExecutive BrieferOpportunity GeneratorSellerTeam LeaderSales Manager, Account Manager

We introduced a number principles from what Silicon Valley mavens call the "lean startup" process:

  • Try something; you're always in beta
  • Fail fast
  • Measure
  • Learn fast
  • Iterate

Given the freedom to fail (actually, encouraged to fail fast), the team avoided the analysis paralysis that cripples so many initiatives. They tried ideas, discovered what worked and what didn't, and developed a habit of continuous discovery and improvement that's now become an unconscious competence for them.

Lesson #5: Perfect is the enemy of great.

The team's Intelligence Gatherers quickly dug up industry news about emerging business issues, personnel movement, acquisitions, new products, competition, etc.

However, they discovered that the team had a shortage of Opportunity Generators to initiate discussions about these with relevant stakeholders within the client. Think of a an automotive production line delivering a continuous supply of transmissions to a station with no installers. They pile up pretty quickly and stop the entire process.

Investigating topics is much more comfortable for lawyers than actually calling people to discuss them. But without that step, none of the team's goals will be reached, and the team will fail. The lawyers feared that their call would be unwelcome, intrusive, interrupt a busy person, or make the lawyers look foolish.

We combined two RainmakerVT courses with real-time coaching, to overcome these fears and inculcate the necessary skill.  (Door-Opener: Associate Yourself with Business Issues that Drive Demand for Your Expertise provided the conceptual the foundation; and Expand Your Network from Your Desk taught the operational skill) 

Imagine the firm's surprise when three very callow lawyers (Y1, Y2, Y3) took the plunge and proved very effective at this. These young lawyers have a rock-solid foundation for business development based on successful experience.

Lesson #6: Business development skills aren’t innate; they’re learned. Anything can be learned.

Some months into the project, the Team Leader called me, anxious that she'd be on vacation during an upcoming team meeting. "Who will run the meeting?" My answer probably struck her as simplistic (if not simple-minded): "Somebody else."

She approached one of the associates and asked him to fill in, which he did quite well by my observation. That began a planned rotation, by which a different team member would compile an agenda and lead each meeting. We saw a number of people demonstrate unexpected capability.

Likewise, one of the firm's librarians took it upon herself to come up with a scheme to collect, organize, distribute and relate to all the intelligence being gathered. She began offering and implementing many suggestions about how the team could improve its organization and communication. At the end of the year, she was the obvious choice as the team's MVP.

Lesson #7: You don’t know what your people are capable of until you give them a chance to shine.

This team is now concluding its second year, and has reinvented itself and reorganized itself several times. There are almost no similarities between its beginning and how it's now constituted.

As planned, we decreased my role during Year Two, and concluded it in October. The training wheels came off; the team is now completely self-sufficient.

The business relationship was for most of its history very IP-centric. However, through the team's effort, the firm has recorded meaningful increases in the types and value of work.

Client representatives consistently comment that the firm's commitment and consistency to understanding the company's business and applying it to the legal relationship has resulted in the word going around that a call from anyone at this firm is a worthwhile call. They never call to pitch; only to contribute. They have concretely differentiated themselves from competitors.

The team reports getting work from "surprising quarters," i.e., people who they didn't even know knew about them now call to explore new engagements, reflecting a reliable pattern of referrals within the client.

Lesson #8: A firm’s brand is the sum of its clients’ experiences with them. You’re absolutely in control of what clients experience with you.

This Fall, the firm began a second self-directed client team. The existing client relationship is not as mature or longstanding, the team is smaller and more senior, and they're blazing a new path, proving once again that smart people, given the freedom to innovate, will do just that.

Mike O'Horo

If you'd like to discuss how you can transform your client teams into self-directing producers who delight clients, drop me a line or call me.