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Partnering With Your Partners: Promoting Team Rewards

by Ed Poll

"All for one and one for all" may be an old concept, but "team lawyering" is a relatively new one for the legal profession.

By definition, teamwork in a law firm environment means partnering with other lawyers in the firm to reach common goals. With partnering, it is the firm that is promoted, and it is the firm that is the legal representative of clients, not any single lawyer.

Why would lawyers in one firm want to team up? First and foremost, team efforts produce greater revenues, both for the firm and for the individuals. One reason for this is that it's easier to promote the capabilities of a colleague than it is to brag about yourself. Another is that the chances to connect on a personal level with a prospective client increase when more people are involved.

A second benefit to teamwork is that multiple minds are frequently better than one. The intellectual interaction between lawyers working on a matter, especially a contested matter, can provide the fuel for very creative strategies that might not otherwise come up.

A less obvious benefit was recently stated by a McLean, Virginia, company when it concluded: "...internal surveys show there's a bonus to teamwork. Workers not only make more money for the company; they are happier." Since law firms' assets wear shoes (and can leave without notice), the work atmosphere is important. Happy employees work longer, harder, and more effectively.

Teamwork Obstacles

In the legal community, obstacles have hindered the implementation of this "new" teamwork paradigm, the most important being that there has been no incentive to teaming with colleagues. Compensation programs have not rewarded the team approach. In fact, most compensation plans disfavor teamwork. "Sourcing" is frequently a major element of compensation, and to share a source is likely to dilute a lawyer's own compensation package.

However, for the law firm to grow successfully and become institutionalized so that "the firm" survives (as contrasted to individuals within the firm), teamwork clearly needs to be an essential element of the firm's philosophy.

Changing the Firm's Culture

If a firm wants to promote "partnering" or "teamwork," that usually means that the law firm culture must change. And in order to change the culture, changing the components of the compensation system is necessary.

The compensation committee or the managing partner must affirmatively state that a requirement of being a member of the firm is that other members of the firm be involved in all matters involving "x" dollars exposure, minimum expected attorney's fees, or certain types of cases, etc. Base compensation must, in some fashion, be tied to the effectiveness of the lawyer involving other firm lawyers as part of the team delivering legal services to clients.

Terminating the Source

Being perceived as a "rainmaker" for the firm, or source of the client relationship, usually brings with that perception a larger percentage of the firm's compensation. But, if that compensation scheme continues indefinitely, the culture of the firm remains entrepreneurial, and isolated, not cooperative. If there is no "sunset" provision for terminating the "source credit," the firm will never institutionalize the client or the work generated from that client.

Ultimately, the work must become a "house" account where the firm keeps the client. The attorney bringing in the business should be compensated for the source, but only for the first few years. The firm needs to have a "sunset formula" providing for a decrease over a period of several years, perhaps three to five at the most. The lawyer can get a bonus for "teaming" and bringing in other lawyers to deal with the matter and with the client.

As teams proliferate, organizations must shift the emphasis of their recognition programs from individual to team rewards. Even individual rewards should acknowledge people who are effective team players -- people who freely share their expertise, "share their clients," help out when needed, and challenge teams to improve.

Firms need to get away from a star system that rewards only the individuals who stand out from the crowd, and also reward people who help the crowd perform better.

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