June 2, 2008

Collaboration and Equity

In his recent discussion of Charles Heckscher's book, The Collaborative Enterprise, Larry Prusak notes that while collaboration may be the latest buzzword (with all the attendant shallow writing and commentary that regularly accompanies business fads), Hecksher's book is a material improvement over most of the other available analysis of collaboration. One striking observation is reported by Prusak in the following way:
[Heckscher] knows well that collaboration depends on trust, and trust depends on a sense of shared equity within the organization. In situations of gross disparities of power and compensation how can one expect collaboration? The real class conflict that exists within most organizations strongly inhibits real collaboration.
These notions of "shared equity" and the perils of "class conflict" raise some interesting issues for law firms, which tend to be highly hierarchical and often lack a sense of shared equity between the partners and their employees (including associates and the non-lawyer staff). If Prusak and Heckscher are correct, will it ever be possible for law firms to develop a true culture of collaboration?


Mark Gould said...

In answer to your final question, Mary, I think it depends on the law firm. (It may also depend on the prevailing legal cultural tradition, but I only have hearsay evidence on that point, so I'll leave it for now.)

Whilst it is true that there is at any given time little shared equity between associates and partners, that is a fluid situation. Good associates (probably the ones we really want to be collaborating well) will know that they have a real chance of joining the partnership. If the partnership does not encourage their associates to feel that they have that potential, there will be less sense of shared equity.

Another factor might be that the hierarchy in many law firms (on the legal side at least) is much shallower than in a manufacturing business, for example.

Finally, there is also some shared equity in the well-being of clients, if a law firm takes that seriously.

Mary Abraham said...

Mark -

You're absolutely right when you say that this depends on the individual firm. It would be interesting to know which firms (or types of firms) are most successful in promoting a sense of shared equity. Is it firms that have small classes of associates who believe with good reason that they will become partners as long as they work hard and grow as lawyers (barring unforeseen circumstances)? Is it firms that have such a strong institutional culture that all lawyers who stay for any period of time do what needs to be done to help that culture flourish? Is it firms that have such a singular focus on what you aptly call "the well-being of clients," that everyone collaborates because it's the right thing to do for the sake of the clients? Or does the firm need to have all these elements in place?

Finally, to the extent that associates are burnt-out, disaffected, cynical or disengaged, they will be disinclined to be collaborative. Therefore, firms need to move their attention beyond mere retention to enhanced engagement. This is a much bigger challenge.

- Mary