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Most law firms want to keep as much work as possible in-house, so it makes sense to encourage as many intra-firm referrals as possible. But intra-firm referrals can be a challenge to manage due to three major obstacles: a lack of familiarity with the work that other partners do, an inherent lack of trust among law firm partners, and difficulty locating experts within the firm. These challenges are heightened in large firms with multiple offices or for firms that were formed as a result of multiple mergers bringing together firms with different cultures together.

Unfamiliarity Leads to a Lack of Trust

When partners are not familiar with one another or the work that they do, there is a lack of both competency trust (trusing that your partner has the expertise to represent the client well) and relational trust (trusting that your partner will not damage the relationship with the client).

One law firm partner puts it this way,

“People no longer feel the same personal accountability to each other that makes them interrupt their own agenda to help on another partner’s client. I feel like I need to negotiate or incentivize, whereas before people would just do the right thing for each other.” (The Practice)

Collaborating on client work provides partners with the opportunity to gain firsthand experience with one anothers’ work, and this experience builds competency trust, making them more likely to refer business or to collaborate in the future. This collaboration also produces better outcomes for clients.

The problem is that partners are reluctant to collaborate with those they don’t already know and trust, but they can’t build that knowledge and trust unless they take the leap and work with colleagues from different offices or in different practice areas with whom they are not familiar.

Building Trust

Most lawyers are used to autonomy and competition, rather than collaborating with others. But creating a truly collaborative team may mean that each partner needs to step back at certain times during the representation and allow the other partner to be the leader, while they take a supporting role. This can be a complex undertaking. If both partners’ objectives are not aligned, it can lead to increased competition and confict – the opposite of what collaboration is trying to achieve. Law firms need to take steps to help the firm’s partners establish both competency and relational trust in order to foster collaboration.

Firm and practice group leaders need to create opportunities to allow the firm’s partners to meet face to face and get to know one other, both socially and professionally, and look for ways to introduce collaboration into management of client matters.

Senior partners should promote the expertise of junior partners to help other partners get to know their services and their competency. Intra-firm secondments, placing lawyers for several months or a year within another office, encouraging firm leaders to connect professionals in different offices or with different areas of expertise, and placing junior lawyers on more complex work with other colleagues, can all help partners develop firsthand knowledge of one anothers’ work.

Workshops and law firm retreats can also provide avenues to introduce partners to one another and to encourage them to explore potential opportunities to work together across offices or practice areas. Firms should also develop mechanisms to hold partners accountable for seeking out and following through on collaborative opportunities. Publicizing collaborations with successful client outcomes in firm newsletters, intranets, and social media can all help to reinforce the culture of collaboration, demonstrate how others have worked successfully together, and spark ideas for new collaborations in the future.

Building relational trust is more difficult, but no less important, than building competency trust. Since service standards can vary widely within firms or even practice groups, firms or relationship partners may need to document specific, non-negotiable service standards that any attorney working on the client’s matters will comply with to improve the chances that collaboration will be successful.

Locating Experts

The third obstacle to collaboration – locating experts within the firm – may be the easiest to solve. The same partner quoted above notes,

“I used to know enough about my partners’ work that it would take me only one or perhaps two phone calls to locate even the most esoteric expertise I needed. Now [after a series of mergers], the firm has a lot more experts available, but finding them is exponentially trickier.”

As lawyers within the firm begin to collaborate and get to know one another better, they will have a better understanding of where each partner’s expertise lies. But until that happens, the firm must be able to provide partners with an easy way to identify lawyers with specific experience and talents whom they can call on for expertise. ioRefer’s interactive database can help partners looking for assistance on a particular project to quickly post and distribute notices within the law firm, and others can view the database to find projects they can contribute to.

Additional Resources

How Law Firm Compensation Systems Impede Collaboration

Cross-Selling vs. Collaboration for Law Firms

Are Large Law Firms in Danger of Losing Business?