Select Page

Heidi Gardner, Distinguished Fellow in the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School and former faculty member at Harvard Business School, focuses her research on leadership and collaboration in professional service firms. Her extensive research, law firm interviews, and surveys reveal that collaboration can help law firms survive in an economic downturn. (See

According to Gardner, by developing a strong culture of collaboration, law firms can:

1. Institutionalize Clients with a Broader Range of Services

When partners with experience in different practice areas work together, they can offer a broader range of services to clients, thereby making the firm a one-stop shop; clients no longer have to decide which law firm can meet their specific needs because they are already familiar with the firm’s broad capabilities.

When everyone in the legal department is familiar with multiple lawyers in the firm and their capabilities, that firm stays top of mind, and the choice to use the firm becomes much easier. Clients become “institutionalized” clients of the firm, rather than clients with loyalty to an individual partner. This limits the potential that a client will leave the firm with any individual partner.

2. Foster Internal Loyalty

By working collaboratively with one another and sharing work, lawyers establish strong relationships not just with clients, but with their partners and the firm as a whole. These strong bonds lead to an increased willingness to engage in other relationship-building activities, including delegating or sharing work, mentoring, and cross-selling.

In addition, once clients become more institutionalized within the firm, individual partners become less attractive to outside law firms; because the client has relationships with multiple partners it is less likely that one partner will be able to transfer their business to an outside firm. As a result, the partner becomes more invested in the success of their existing firm.

3. Integrate Lateral Hires More Quickly and Effectively

Integrating lateral hires within law firms has long been a challenge because many laterals arrive with a book of business and continue to focus on their own clients, rather than getting to know the firm’s clients or even their new partners. Similarly, existing partners are unlikely to reach out to a new lateral partner because they too concerned about maintaining their own clients and billing hours. In short, there is a lack of trust.

But in a firm with a strong culture of collaboration, where lateral partners are encouraged to share clients and work with existing partners and vice versa, laterals learn the new firm’s culture, practices and procedures more quickly. They get to know their colleagues, building trust between the old and new partners while providing additional services to both new and existing clients.

4. Increase Partner Profits

Gardner’s research has found a “clear causal pattern” between collaboration and increased profits. Rainmakers who “share the work that they originate end up with significantly bigger books of business than those who tend to hoard work,” Gardner says.

“No matter how much work the partner generates this year, if he or she refers that work to other partners rather than hoarding it, then that partner’s origination amount will increase significantly the next year.”

By consistently teaming up with their colleagues, lawyers developed trust in their partners, which made it easier to develop creative, comprehensive solutions for their clients, to refer business to other partners internally, or to work together to develop and land new business, all of which leads to greater revenue.

Blunting the Impact of an Economic Downturn

Taken together, the advantages of collaboration can help law firms blunt the impact of an economic downturn. According to Gardner, “even professionals who were moderately connected to others in their firms—that is, they had worked each year with just 10 other partners in the three years prior to the 2008 recession—preserved their revenue during the financial crisis.”

Why? Partners who were used to collaborating before the crisis continued to do so during the downturn, helping one another keep revenues up by “spread[ing] their exposure across clients such that they benefited when some of those clients survived better than others during a crisis.” Collaborative partners were also more used to adapting as a result of working on multi-practice projects and could work with clients on a broader number of issues.

By contrast, less collaborative partners saw significant drops in their revenue during the downturn. And the benefits of collaboration extended beyond the crisis and into the recovery period, as collaborative partners were able to increase their revenue more quickly once the crisis had passed.

If you want to strengthen the culture of collaboration in your firm to help negate the effects of the next economic downturn, ioRefer’s tools can help your firm’s partners identify, collaborate with, and refer business to one another.

Additional Collaboration Resources

Improve Firm Performance with Collaborative Business Development

Building a Referral Culture in Your Law Firm