Communication & Collaboration a Challenge for Law Firms

14 September 2017

Lawyers and leaders are better at critical thinking than they are at communicating or collaborating, and are challenged when it comes to finding creative solutions, according to research by the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA) and InfoTrack released at 2017 ALPMA Summit today.

The ALPMA/InfoTrack 21st Century Thinking at Australasian Law Firms research measures how well Australasian law firms are embracing the key 21st century learning skills of creativity, critical-thinking, communication and collaboration, as defined by the influential P21 organisation.

“These are the skills for today and indeed tomorrow. Embracing these skills will ensure firms are able to successfully transform the way they think and work—essential if they want to thrive in a turbulent legal landscape,” Andrew Barnes, ALPMA President and CEO of the Lantern Legal Group said.

“The research indicates firms are on different rates of progress along this path. Some may not have commenced the journey yet,” he said.

“A new mindset is only the start. Committing long term to the objectives of these learnings promises great pay-offs for staff and clients and therefore the partners and the firm as a whole.”

While most firms placed high value on communication, collaboration and critical thinking, few firms strongly valued creativity. This is an essential ingredient for innovation, and a missed opportunity for firms seeking competitive advantage in a turbulent sector.

Efforts by firms to improve their effectiveness in these four critical skills were typically internally focused, and targeted at staff in the same office, rather than those in other offices or external to the organisation.

Interestingly, few firms focus on their suppliers as potential partners in their effort to improve creativity, critical thinking, communication or collaboration at their firms, although many firms are working with clients.

“We know from our own experience collaborating with law firms that those who do proactively work with their suppliers inevitably arrive at more innovative and creative solutions that drive greater efficiencies and very often open up new business streams and opportunities,” says John Ahern, Chief Executive Officer, InfoTrack.

“Partnering with organisations who have a different perspective but who genuinely understand your business and in-tune with your client needs can bring a wealth of opportunity in today’s environment where clients are looking for ever increasing ways of doing things smarter and more cost efficiently.”

‘Setting a dedicated budget’ was found to be the least effective strategy to improve any of the four skills at a law firms. Most firms focused their efforts on improving communication and collaboration over last 12 months—with varying results.

The research is part of ALPMA’s on-going research program that aims to help law firms successfully adapt to the changing legal landscape. More than 100 firms participated in this year’s research.

  • 83% of those surveyed had used internal meetings to improve communication; 72% of these noted this action was effective or highly effective.
  • Creating new roles/teams was undertaken by 58% of survey participants; 85% of these noted this action was effective or highly effective.
  • Other actions noted as effective or highly effective for improving communication were enhancing existing technology, implementing new technology, changing organisational structure and external meetings.
  • Efforts to improve communication had the biggest impact on motivation.
  • Firms reported that focusing on team performance was the most effective strategy to improve collaboration (74%).
  • Other actions noted as effective or highly effective for improving collaboration were changing organisational culture and structure, enhancing existing or new technology and creating industry specific teams or client teams.
  • Overall firms reported a low use of technology to enable collaboration with 25% of firms using collaborative cloud platforms, 19% using project management software and 25% using no technology at all.
  • Better teamwork was the net result when firms implemented strategies to improve their communication or collaboration efforts.
  • 63% of those surveyed had conducted training to improve critical thinking; 52% of these noted this action was effective or highly effective.
  • Other strategies noted as effective or highly effective for improving critical thinking were creating specific teams and changing organisational structure.
  • The standard approach to fostering creative thinking at law firms (adopted by 86% of respondents) was asking for staff suggestions—yet only 21% of these respondents rated this as highly effective in terms of delivering results.
  • Other strategies adopted included identifying new initiatives as a part of the firm’s strategic planning process, creating teams dedicated to innovation and running innovation workshops.

Finally, the results show that law firms are not measuring their improvement efforts—nor do they typically reward or recognise staff who demonstrate these skills in their everyday work.

It is clear that the legal sector has a long way to go before becoming proficient across all four skill areas—but encouraging that so many have embarked on this journey.

2017 ALPMA/InfoTrack Australasian Changing Legal Landscape research report is available now.

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The Australasian Legal Practice Management Association, (ALPMA), is the peak body representing managers and lawyers with a legal practice management role.  ALPMA provides an authoritative voice on issues relevant to legal practice management.  Members of ALPMA provide professional management services to legal practices in areas of financial management, strategic management, technology, human resources, facilities and operational management, marketing and information services and technology.