[published in Minnesota Lawyer on April 16, 2012]
© Neil Hamilton and Verna Monson, Ph.D.
Over a century ago, entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie observed “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision – the ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Lawyers seek to obtain uncommon results for each client, and an effective lawyer has to develop excellent skills to work as a team both with each client and with the lawyers, staff, and others to address the client’s objectives efficiently.
This essay reviews highlights of empirical research on the importance of teamwork skills for the individual lawyer and for the law firm or law department. We then summarize the major findings of scholarly work on both the essential elements necessary for effective teamwork and dispel some myths about teamwork.
The Business Case for Teamwork Skills
Empirical research makes clear that it is in the enlightened self-interest of each law student and lawyer to learn strong teamwork skills and of each law firm or department to help lawyers develop such skills. Studies consistently show that both clients evaluating lawyers, and senior lawyers evaluating junior lawyers consider teamwork skills important for effective lawyering. In 2008, Berkeley professors Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck interviewed over 2,000 Berkeley law alumni, asking what attributes and skills each respondent (as client) would look for in hiring a lawyer to represent the respondent on an important matter. Working with others and planning and organization of the work with others were two of the seven major skill areas respondents wanted in a lawyer to represent them in an important matter. In a 2007 survey of law school clinicians on the most important attributes of an effective lawyer, South Carolina law professor Roy Stuckey found that “effective teamwork” and “effectiveness with diverse colleagues” were two of the most important attributes. Indiana law professor William Henderson reported in 2009 that senior partners at major law firms evaluated associates on 23 capacities and skills including teamwork and client engagement, commitment and responsiveness.
Research based on thousands of interviews and hundreds of empirical studies of groups over several decades concludes that groups that work cooperatively towards a common goal are more effective in terms of productivity and quality of work product than individuals working alone. Similarly, groups that are highly adept at giving and receiving constructive feedback and making ongoing improvements are more effective than groups that are not as capable in these processes.
Other studies of teamwork in business, medicine and government show that effective teamwork is correlated with increased customer loyalty, reduction of medical errors, and reduced group -think, where group members who have strong contributions to make remain silent rather than disagree with the majority opinion. Scholars have found that the ability to work effectively on a team is a critical competence in the legal, medical, nursing, and related health professions, and in management, the military, civil aviation, law enforcement, and in intelligence and defense work. Students also benefit from effective teamwork skills. In a 2008 meta-analysis that examined over 148 studies involving more than 17,000 students, researchers found that positive interpersonal relationships with peers in cooperative learning groups accounted for 33% of the variance associated with academic achievement.
Research finds that effective teams make better decisions than individuals, and organizational performance improves with effective teamwork. This occurs because specialization and expertise are becoming increasingly necessary in solving complex problems. Working across multiple disciplines and specialties is no longer an option, but a necessity. Team members whose expertise and roles are interdependent are able to solve tough problems better than individuals. When team members receive mentoring and interpersonal support, organizational performance is enhanced.
The Elements of Effective Teamwork
There is a substantial literature on the elements of effective teamwork that looks at processes and decisions such as goal and task interdependence and the interpersonal skills required for these interdependencies; this essay reviews only a portion of this literature emphasizing goal interdependence and interpersonal relationship skills necessary for goal interdependence. University of Minnesota professor and social psychologist David Johnson finds that “high-performing teams or groups demonstrate positive social interdependence, defined by the condition which occurs when outcomes for individuals are affected by their own and others’ actions.” Research comparing teams with positive social interdependence (cooperation) to teams with negative interdependence (competition), shows differences in social dynamics.
Interpersonal skills flowing from an awareness of self and a sharing of the self with others play a large role in creating the “trust and rely” elements of goal interdependence through cooperation shown in the figure above. Jon Katzenbach, organizational consultant and team expert at Booz and Company, and Douglas K. Smith, formerly of McKenzie, write that “Teamwork represents a set of values that encourage behaviors such as listening and constructively responding to points of view expressed by others, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and recognizing the interests and achievements of others.” They also suggest that a key goal for each team member is to support the development and the interpersonal capacities of the other members of the team. Other interpersonal capacities such as emotional regulation, communication, assertiveness, using positive conflict resolution techniques such as negotiation, and appreciating diversity are also important in effective team functioning.
Katzenbach and Smith state that teams that fall short of working effectively can improve through training — working sessions with team members focused on actual problems in the business unit. The primary purpose of the session is to provide team members with feedback on their interactions within the group, giving them ample opportunities to practice new behaviors such as listening more deeply to other team members or being aware of interrupting others.
The empirical evidence is very strong that it is in each law student’s and each lawyer’s enlightened self-interest to learn effective teamwork skills. It is also in each law firm’s self interest to foster these skills. There are some teamwork myths that may fuel resistance to educational efforts to foster teamwork skills. Based on his empirical research, Harvard social and organizational psychologist J. Richard Hackmann dispels six myths about teams.
Myth #1. Effective teams are ones where there is little or no conflict.
Reality: Effective teamwork means that conflict is managed constructively. The ability of members to disagree and discuss issues openly is vital.
Myth #2. Teams require new membership to keep energy high and infuse the group with new ideas.
Reality: Teams that work together longer learn how to become more effective at teamwork.
Myth #3. Teams that have more members will be able to accomplish more.
Reality: The smaller the team, the more effective it tends to be.
Myth #4. Team meetings face-to-face are no longer important in the era of email and Skype.
Reality: Face-to-face interaction is beneficial, particularly at key points in a project.
Myth #5: Teams require great leaders in order to function optimally.
Reality: While a good leader can be helpful, the more effective approach is for leaders to foster the team members’ ability to independently manage themselves. Rotating leadership periodically can give all members experience in a leading role.
Myth #6. Teamwork is the best solution for almost all problems or projects.
Reality: The choice to assign a team to a project should be one made with thought and consideration. In some cases, individuals working alone may be the best approach. Teamwork is one tool in a law firm’s management arsenal that is appropriate when problems are too large or complex for individuals working alone to efficiently solve or when solutions require specialists or an interdisciplinary approach. [Note that at a minimum, the lawyer has to work with the client as a team to address the client’s objectives.]