Sunday, March 4, 2018
On the big screen, we lawyers are lone gunslingers. We strut into the courtroom and engage our adversaries armed with nothing but our wits. But to steal a cliché: There is no “I” in lawyer. Most of legal practice is a team sport. And as legal matters become more complicated, the need for team-based lawyering is ever more pressing.
Despite that lawyering (and particularly legal writing) is done in teams, law schools don’t offer much training on this skill. This is unlike, say, business schools—another field that requires lots of teamwork.
So let’s give some thought to how we can build top-notch legal-writing teams. A large body of research can help us. First, we’ll look at some high-level ideas. Then we'll consider some more specific suggestions for how you can play well with others.
A couple of years ago, Google announced that it discovered how to build the perfect team. After years of analyzing data from more than 100 teams, it found that raw skill was not all that important. What matters most? Emotional intelligence and wide-open flows of communication. In other words, an environment where everyone feels emotionally comfortable and supported. That was the single best determiner of team success.
Google’s most recent team research concluded much the same: the critical predictor of team success was “psychological safety”—whether team members feel safe to let their guard down and speak their mind without fear of judgment or retribution.
That people work best when they feel emotionally and psychologically comfortable makes sense. Tons of research suggests that we are most productive when we feel supported by those around us. And research also shows that being open to disagreement is critical to producing high quality results. For example, studies on team deviants—where you designate someone on your team to play the devil's advocate—show that creating an environment of psychological safety can profoundly influence a team’s success.
Google’s research also suggests that good teams are ones where members are (1) dependable, (2) have clear roles, and (3) find their work meaningful and impactful. Loads of research backs these points up, too: teams work best with upfront expectations, clear individual roles, and assignments that resonate with each member.
What can we take from all this? First, creating an environment of psychological safety where communication flows freely—and even designating a team deviant who is tasked with disagreeing—may do wonders for your end product. This will combat the pervasive groupthink and bias that often runs rampant, and it will increase everyone’s motivation and buy-in to the team.
Another takeaway is clearly setting out at the beginning of a project, in writing, your expectations. Take a few minutes to brainstorm and write down the practical goals for your document and who is in charge of what. This will ensure everyone is on the same page, it will balance everyone’s expectations, and it will streamline workflow.
Regular feedback for team members is also crucial (and has been the subject of countless studies). If folks don’t tell each other what they are doing well and what they can improve, don’t expect the process to get any better—now or in the next project.
Post-mortems are great, where the team talks through a past project to learn how to do things better next time. But also consider a pre-mortem: getting the team together at the start to guess what will go wrong and working backwards from there.
Make sure to balance each member’s role. Uneven teams are just asking for trouble. Some members will start to feel less of a member. Some may feel overworked.
Give some thought also to ways you can encourage communication flow generally. For legal writing in particular, the flow of communication (like editing comments) can range from nonexistent to overwhelming.
How about things we can do an individual level?
- First, be supportive of your teammates. This includes sharing credit with them, being reliable and finishing your projects on time, and honing your emotional intelligence (often, what we say does not reflect what we are feeling—watch out for when others may need some emotional support or a break). Multiple studies suggest that the most successful team members are those who spend the time to cultivate strong relationships with their teammates.
- Listen well. And if you’re bad at listening, use tools to get better—like counting to three before you respond to someone else’s comment.
- Give, and ask for, plenty of feedback. You can’t know what you’re doing right and wrong without feedback on your writing. And the same goes for others.
- Be meticulously reliable. Not following through on a single task can disrupt the entire drafting process. And it will undermine your credibility from then on. For legal writing in particular: if you don’t get everyone your edits or drafts when you said you would, good luck getting anyone to work with you in the future.
- Make sure you actively participate. Jump to take on new tasks and involve yourself in team activities. The less you participate in the team, the less you will feel like a member.
- Be disruptive and self-motivated. Team members who focus on innovation, anticipate problems, and recognize when the team needs to change add tons of value.
- Never, ever, gossip about other members. There is no surer way to destroy a team.
Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here.