Collaboration vs. Competition

Collaboration vs. CompetitionPlease welcome guest writer, Whitney Weatherly, to discuss how to balance the competitive legal world with the need for collaboration and working together.

A student recently requested my help with something, and I declined, deferring to a colleague who specializes in the type of help that she needed. It was a positive interaction, though, and I told one of my coworkers about it. She suggested that I could have done the work, but I insisted that I was right to decline. In a way, my coworker was right. With training, I probably could provide the help that the student needed. But would that have been the best way to serve her and my company?

We live in a world where people are too apt to claim expertise for fear of appearing weak or inadequate. As lawyers and law students, our culture seems to reward all-around experts rather than people who are willing to acknowledge their limitations, defer to the superior knowledge of others, and collaborate when appropriate. It’s time to think about the spectrum between competition and collaboration, and how attorneys can move the industry standard in a way that fosters information sharing for the benefit of clients.

Culture of Competition

Obviously when there are two opposing parties there will be some measure of competition. The legal world is full of competition for trial verdicts, resources, and rights. For some reason this has translated into competition within law firms. I suppose that isn’t too surprising. Law attracts competitive people, and their bosses foster competitive environments. But how does that look in practice? Attorney A has built himself up in a firm and is made primary on a major client account. To do the job properly, he needs the expertise of Attorney B, who is slightly junior to him. So he brings Attorney B onto his team, knowing that if she distinguishes herself on his client case, she might get the next assignment. In this scenario, A is highly competitive and wants to make sure that he is always the “star” of his cases. So A gives the grunt work to B, shuts down her ideas to her face, and passes them off as his own to the client. B basically has three options: (1) try to get off of this case (which may or may not be possible), (2) keep her head down and her ideas to herself, and (3) quit.

In an ultra-competitive environment, the client loses, and so does the firm. A is so focused on his own personal “win”, that he forgets to use the expertise that he needed B for in the first place.

Culture of Collaboration

What if employers fostered collaboration among their employees instead of competition? Obviously, they still have to “compete” with opposing counsel and other firms, so they can still hire competitive people. But what if that competitiveness stayed outward-facing? Take the scenario above. A is still slightly senior, and has some experience with this client’s case. He knows that B’s expertise in a certain area is absolutely essential to the job they need to do. He personally doesn’t have that depth of understanding, so he brings her on his team. When B makes suggestions, A listens and asks questions. He knows enough to be able to come up with possible adjustments to B’s plan, and they discuss the possibilities. After going back and forth, they present their plan to the client together. A gives appropriate credit to B, and B feels validated and appreciated. A, rather than looking weak, looks like a brilliant manager for bringing together the right team for the job.

In this collaborative scenario, the client gets the best possible advice for his case, and the firm has happy, competent, motivated employees.

Finding Your Place

When you look for a job, consider what kind of culture your prospective employer fosters. Obviously, there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities between competitive and collaborative environments. Where will you be able to thrive? Where will you be able to build your skills and learn from experts so that you can become one of them? If you’re in an ultra-competitive workplace, is there anything you can do to undercut it? Can you amplify other voices around you to make sure that they’re being heard? Can you maneuver yourself into a group that will respect your expertise and use it appropriately? Should you be looking for another employer…or even looking to be your own?

In a world where everyone wants to look like an expert in everything, it takes a lot of courage to admit that you don’t know something. It’s time to acknowledge that the law is too huge to have any all-around experts, and start taking pride in recognizing when our clients would benefit from a certain type of specialist.


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About Whitney Weatherly

Whitney started her post-graduate education at the University of Mary Washington, earning a Master’s in Education. She soon decided to change course, and went to the College of William & Mary School of Law. At William & Mary, she was an Articles Editor for the Journal of Women and the Law and a Teaching Assistant for the Legal Skills program. Through the Legal Skills program, she was able to provide mentorship for first and second year law students, as well as instruction in legal writing and client contact. In 2010, she graduated Order of the Coif and was admitted to the bar in Maryland. She is a tutor for the Start Law School Right program, where she combines her legal and educational background to help others grasp fundamental legal concepts. Whitney is also a tutor for the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox.

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