Beyond Boundaries

Harvard’s Heidi Gardner argues that smart collaboration will become key to success for GCs in an increasingly complex business world


Collaboration |

Collaboration has, admittedly, become something of a buzzword in the legal profession these days. But all signs suggest that it is far more than a passing fad. Throughout the legal world, as in most knowledge-based industries, two trends are crashing together. On the one hand, vast increases in knowledge are forcing professionals to specialise, whether by discipline, geography or problem class. On the other hand, vast increases in the complexity of today’s problems call for those specialists to collaborate across disciplinary and organisational boundaries to tackle those sophisticated issues. In short, the tension between these two trends is what produces the need for effective collaboration.

collaboration_puzzleIn this sense, smart collaboration is a means to an end: in-house lawyers must integrate their individual, specialised expertise to deliver high-quality, customised outcomes on complex issues. Increasingly, they must also rely on experts in other functions throughout their company, and to become business partners with managers and executives across their company. By truly collaborating, a team of knowledge professionals is able to address issues that none could tackle individually.

Yet, collaborating across these boundaries is often messy, risky and costly. Teamwork is never cheap – the risks, co-ordination effort and start-up costs are real – so unless professionals know why they’re collaborating, it may not be smart.

Over the last decade, first at Harvard Business School and now Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, my research has examined collaboration among high-autonomy, powerful professionals. I have collected millions of data records across multiple firms, including a decade’s worth of timesheet, personnel and financial records. Statistical analyses reveal patterns in the data that are difficult for the human mind to detect, and these are supplemented with insights from hundreds of in-depth interviews and thousands of survey responses. My book Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos elaborates these findings.

My research shows that when lawyers get collaboration right – that is, do complex work that spans legal disciplines, business units, or geographies within their company – they produce better business outcomes and attract and retain the highest-calibre talent. This article examines how in-house lawyers can overcome organisational and cultural barriers to reap the benefits of such collaboration.

Benefits of collaboration for in-house lawyers

Increasingly, in-house lawyers must combine their specialised legal knowledge with input from experts in other parts of the organisation to tackle complicated issues and opportunities spanning disciplines and geographies. Take cyber security as an example. The threat landscape has grown increasingly complex, with attackers weaving together all sorts of malicious tools and gaining access through every imaginable entry point in a company. Warding off these threats demands an ongoing, comprehensive, cross-organisational effort that brings together in-house lawyers with counterparts not only in IT and security functions but also human resources, manufacturing and logistics, public relations, customer service, and others.

Collaboration also helps to reduce risk of various types. For one thing, when multiple people work together on a complicated issue, the probability increases that one of them will spot errors or nuances that teammates missed. Similarly, collaboration gives in-house lawyers greater transparency into their colleagues’ work, which lowers the risk of rogue behaviour. Admittedly, intentional bad behaviours are still relatively rare, but data from some insurers suggest that they are on the rise. And when they do occur, they can be fatal. Finally, collaboration mitigates against key-person risk; if multiple in-house lawyers are up-to-speed on an issue, the company is better protected if that issue blows up while one of the experts is on holiday or leaves the company.

On the positive side, collaboration produces more innovative outcomes – that is, solutions that are both novel and useful, and which therefore lead to long-term business benefits. A growing body of research demonstrates that innovation is most likely when specialists team up. For example, a study of two million patents and 20 million academic publications across half a century shows that teams are more productive than individual scientists, and teams produce innovations that have a greater impact in their domain—even in fields like engineering and social science that were historically dominated by freestanding ‘geniuses’.

Of course, not every problem requires a brand new solution. Instead, many just involve tailoring an existing solution to a specific business situation. For example, the general counsel for a major manufacturing company recollected his experience of taking a ‘gold standard’, web-based compliance approach and adapting it to production workers who lacked access to computers. He needed inputs and commitment from the factory managers and shift workers to transform his initial solution into a pragmatic one. The resulting paper-and-pencil ‘innovation’ was more like back to the future, but it was the non-standard advice that his internal client needed. This kind of innovation often requires new attitudes, as well as a new configuration of resources for in-house lawyers, in order to collaborate across traditional boundaries.

Just like external law firms, many in-house legal departments are fighting a war for talent, and collaboration can help in this regard, too. Millennials – the generation of people born roughly between the mid-1980s and 2000 – are an important component. Although they currently make up about a quarter of the total workforce, in just over a decade Millennials will exceed 75% of the global workforce. Such workers expect to be more involved in all aspects of the work, to be continually challenged, and to be able to challenge their hierarchical superiors. They expect to get exposure to both important assignments and to top decision-makers early in their careers. If senior attorneys in an in-house legal department insist on operating in a siloed, anti-collaborative manner, they’re probably going to lose some of their most valuable younger colleagues quickly.

Heidi Gardner, Harvard Law SchoolTeams produce innovations that have a greater impact — even in fields like engineering and social science that were historically dominated by freestanding “geniuses”.

Heidi Gardner – Harvard Law School

But collaboration is important for attracting and retaining top talent of all ages. Decades of psychology and sociology research show that the higher the number of formal or informal connections between individuals and their colleagues, the more those individuals are committed to both their job and their employer. My own survey and archival research confirms that many knowledge professionals’ motivation, sense of belonging, and ultimately retention rates increase as a result of their collaborative experiences. Given the time and expense of recruiting talent into legal departments, leaders should consider an investment in collaboration as a near sure-fire way to get important returns on talent.

Reaping the benefits

Competence trust – the belief that another’s expertise is both high-quality and useful – is a precursor to effective collaboration. According to my research, the lack of competence trust is a major, two-way barrier for legal departments: many in-house lawyers neither trust their business counterparts’ judgement nor are they trusted by those same people as being able to add value beyond the ‘Department of No’ stereotype. To overcome this barrier, in-house lawyers need ongoing development programmes focusing on business issues so that they learn to identify business (not merely legal) points of view. Their ability to speak the language boosts their credibility in the eyes of their business partners. Programmes that develop in-house lawyers’ broader leadership development capabilities, not just technical finance or accounting skills, allow them to operate at a multi-faceted level with insight and confidence. Even better: short rotations into non-legal positions inside the company allow in-house lawyers to deepen their understanding of the broader context and to build strong, interpersonal connections throughout their organisation.

But in-house lawyers need to collaborate with their legal colleagues, too. Forward-thinking general counsel are breaking up the workflow in their departments and sending more routine parts of matters to lower-cost locales or less-expensive legal resources. This strategy frees up their true experts to focus primarily on high-value work, but it requires them to collaborate with colleagues who might be strangers in a far-flung location. To build the necessary trust, invest in initial face-to-face meetings to build mutual understanding and rapport, then encourage lawyers to use technology like FaceTime or Skype to maintain the personal connection when interacting with distant colleagues.

Finally, the shift toward more collaborative behaviours requires vigilance and determination. Because there are up-front investment costs to learning new skills and building relationships, lawyers need ways to know they are on track – and to demonstrate progress to others, too. Define clear metrics that capture in-house lawyers’ collaborative behaviours and outcomes. For example, one department sets the goal that every in-house lawyer must show dignity and respect in collaborating to complete assignments across units, and then has managers rate each direct report on these behaviours. They also measure results of collaboration, and can demonstrate that it now takes fewer people to handle a file than it did with more traditional, less collaborative staffing models. Metrics are critical both for accountability and signalling. Build them into performance review systems, but just as important: make them a living, breathing part of the legal department’s culture by recognising and celebrating people who are making strides.

Heidi Gardner is a distinguished fellow in the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School.


  • Heidi Gardner, , The In-House Lawyer