Can legal matters be solved better within multidisciplinary teams?
08 July 2020

Can legal matters be solved better within multidisciplinary teams?

Published on 08 July 2020

I have been fascinated with the idea of lawyers working in multidisciplinary teams for a while. As someone who works within the design and technology space, I’ve often thought that a mix of skills, experience, and disciplines creates the potential for a more holistic problem solving outcome than combining a homogenous set of skills, learning, and roles. When the opportunity arose to dig in to this topic a little deeper as a Distinguished Fellow with the Centre for Legal Innovation, I jumped at the chance. Although I am familiar with multidisciplinary practice groups such as those at PWC and other well-known professional service firms – this practice, to my knowledge, has been historically focused within commercial areas such as mergers and acquisitions – the type of multidisciplinary team my Fellowship project focuses on takes a slightly different direction.

I am exploring the question of whether lawyers can solve problems for clients in a much more holistic and sustainable way by engaging in a multidisciplinary team with the clients’ interest at the core. My research examines how lawyers are working already:

  • whether there are lawyers working in multidisciplinary teams;
  • what makes for (or impedes) a successful and high performing multidisciplinary work environment and team; and
  • if work practices need to change in the legal profession to help multidisciplinary teams flourish, then what is it that needs to change and how can it be fostered.

My work in the Fellowship will be undertaken in three parts:

  • Key project learnings along the way: A blog series distilling my research and initial findings as my project progresses.  You’re currently reading the first of a four-part series!
  • A deep, practical dive into what makes multidisciplinary teams tick: An interview series focusing on lawyers and other professionals working in multidisciplinary teams to understand first-hand what makes them so effective.
  • Sharing key takeaways and creating a new resource for the legal industry: A toolkit or series of recommendations based on my research to help legal professionals working in law firms apply some of the helpful practices and traits that I identify within multidisciplinary teams.

The legal profession, like most industries, continues to evolve. Albeit at a slightly slower pace than a number of other industries. With the proliferation of technology adoption and curiosity, changing client expectations of lawyers, and new generations of law graduates entering the workforce, it is not surprising that the many aspects of how to be a lawyer are open to change.

At the time of writing this piece, the global coronavirus pandemic has the world operating under various restrictions specific to each country. The impact this pandemic has had on the legal profession is still unknown in its entirety however, we regularly see articles and summary wrap ups within the profession demonstrating the plethora of different types of problems the profession faces – both from a practice perspective as well as solving problems for clients.

During this time, I have questioned whether the topic for this Fellowship would still be relevant moving forward. Will people just want to ‘get on with it’ once restrictions ease, wouldn’t we all just want to create some stability and predictability in our lives that may mean leaving the choice to change for 2021?

Possibly yes, but I think now is the right time to rethink how law is practised. It is the perfect time to consider whether clients can be served better, more holistically, regardless of whether their matter might be viewed as commercial, family, crime, or even property. And if the model for problem-solving can be shifted slightly to create better outcomes, then why not try it? Ultimately, clients seek legal advice because a problem is impacting their life and they need help to solve that problem. These are problems that might readily be classified as  ‘business’  or  ‘life’ problems but, not necessarily a clear ‘legal’ problem – counselling of a client in these circumstances needs to be as holistic as the problem itself – and involving all relevant professionals.

The scope of this Fellowship is broad. I could spend years looking at multidisciplinary teams within the legal profession and never finish. To manage this, I have narrowed down the focus to learning from those in the profession who are engaging in this practice already and combining that with a review of the existing research on high performing, multidisciplinary teams. This combination will, I hope, identify the relevant multidisciplinary skills and analyse how they are being used in high performing teams to effectively and efficiently solve legal matters for the benefit of clients. My research has already taken me on a path looking at high performing team character models, health justice partnerships, as well as how team members in a multidisciplinary team gain the most value from having a lawyer involved.

So, what is a multidisciplinary team? The term ‘multidisciplinary team’ has multiple meanings depending on who you speak to or what industry you operate in. For the purpose of this Fellowship, I have kept my definition broad so that I can focus on the work practices and behaviours of these teams regardless of the types of expertise each member brings to the team – my focus is on competencies, not specialist knowledge or technical skills.  For me, a multidisciplinary team is a group of people with different areas of expertise and who likely also work in (or have worked in) different industries, including law. An example of a multidisciplinary team within the scope of examination under this Fellowship would be lawyers, social workers, medical doctors, data scientists, and mental health professionals working together in a law firm, legal department, community legal centre, alternative legal service provider or legally focussed consultancy. It may also include lawyers, digital designers, software developers, and copywriters working together in these work places.

As my Fellowship began, I reviewed the relevant literature already available on multidisciplinary teams. I’ve found insightful articles regarding multidisciplinary health and legal teams but, for now, I’ve chosen the Bannholzer, Metzeler and Roth (2019) ten traits of successful innovators to guide my examination of whether or not lawyers can ‘design’ high performing multidisciplinary teams to solve client problems. You’ll have to wait for my next blog post to see how that turns out!

About the Author

Sarah El-Atm is the General Manager at August – an award-winning independent digital consultancy specialising in optimisation, growth, and bespoke product development within the health, manufacturing, and legal tech sectors. Working to improve business strategies and processes as well as contributing to August’s expansion activities in the United Kingdom and Canada, Sarah enjoys being involved in work that continues to have an impact within our global community. Particularly, Sarah is interested in the intersection of technology, design-thinking and multidisciplinary teams within the legal sector, with a view to creating better results and relationships for legal practitioners and clients alike. When she’s not at August or working on her Fellowship, you’ll find her indulging in a trail run or three.