Is there a place for multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession?
07 April 2021

Is there a place for multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession?

Published on 07 April 2021

Almost twelve months ago, I embarked on a research project focusing on the potential for a multidisciplinary team to thrive in a law firm. I have met delightful, candid, and brilliant thinkers who are working in this space, seeking to drive change. They have contributed to this research by participating in interviews and provided me with the opportunity to test my hypotheses and questions.

This blog describes the research I have undertaken and details the insights I have found during this time.  My research identifies and assesses the benefits that multidisciplinary teams bring to a law firm and provides an appropriate framework to create a high performing group in this specialised environment.

My previous blog introduced my research and started to explore whether lawyers in multidisciplinary teams are better equipped to solve legal matters. In this post, I discuss my research in support of one of the hypotheses I tested during my Fellowship: whether or not a client’s legal problem can be solved better when lawyers are working in multidisciplinary teams. I have broken this question down into various parts. To start with:

  • What exactly is a multidisciplinary team within the context of a law firm?
  • What does it mean to solve a client’s legal problem better?

Research methodology

My research was derived from primary sources, being interviews with a range of legal professionals, and secondary sources, being a mix of academic and professional literature. I focussed my research outcomes on commercial law firms in Australia.

I interviewed eight specialists, none engaged in conventional legal practice. These interviewees came from a range of specialist backgrounds including learning and development within a law firm, in-house counsel, executive leadership, legal operations, and change management. Their approaches to building teams and fostering change can be distinguished from traditional structures in the legal profession, and I have highlighted here the attributes which make their approaches unique.

In my literature review, I explored the meaning of a ‘multidisciplinary team’ within the context of a law firm, the notion of high performing teams in the workplace, and what constitutes a high performing team in sectors outside the law. I considered the design and leadership of multidisciplinary teams within product and technology organisations, the legal profession, and elite professional sporting teams. 

This research helped me build a series of questions which I used in my interviews with participants throughout the year. The questions were focused in three broad areas:

  • understanding the inner workings and make-up of the participant’s multidisciplinary team;
  • what, in the participant’s view, sets a high performing team apart from other teams; and,
  • where someone would start if they were seeking to build a multidisciplinary team. 

What is a ‘multidisciplinary team’.

Broadly, a team that is considered multidisciplinary combines several specialisms – academic and/or professional – to work on solving problems together.  Another way of thinking about a multidisciplinary team is to picture an open-range zoo. We have different species of animals co-existing and the challenge lies in developing a common language or syntax with which they can communicate and get the best out of each other.

Let’s contrast this where a team is more like a beehive – and would not be considered multidisciplinary. Different types of bees exist and swarm in a beehive as they play different roles, but ultimately, they are all the one species of bee in any given hive and can only communicate with other bees. 

I confined my research in law firms to multidisciplinary teams in commercial practices. These teams would ideally be made up of lawyers and other disciplines such as designers, technology engineers, analysts, and finance specialists. I was looking for a group or groups of people that came from different training and professional backgrounds, but included a lawyer, and all of whom are working on legal or quasi-legal problems for clients.

For clarity, I was not looking for a multidisciplinary team that you would ordinarily expect to find within a commercial business structure such as a company director who might also be a lawyer, a finance specialist, a HR specialist, and a marketing professional all working together to run a commercial enterprise.

Distinguishing multidisciplinary teams found during my research.

I set an ambitious goal for myself in seeking to find the type of multidisciplinary team I described above. My research does not reveal an exact team that matches a narrow interpretation of my definition, instead it demonstrates that some of the profession is considering this approach to building teams and by doing so are opening up new revenue opportunities for themselves and engaging in holistic problem-solving for their clients.

Broadly, the research participants work within teams that involve lawyers, different types of technologists and IT specialists, as well as data analysts, business analysts, and designers. Not every team is made up of all these disciplines all of the time. Additionally, a large proportion of team members are lawyers who have consciously added to their skillset. Some have become specialists in additional skills such as project management or automation, and these new skills are now being utilised by the team. For example, Gilbert and Tobin’s GT Innovate team is made up of lawyers, data specialists, technologists, and change experts. Similarly, PwC’s New Law team maintains a core group of experienced team members with strong legal operations backgrounds who then draw on the PwC network of disciplines depending on the client problem they may need to solve.

A common thread emerged during research interviews. Clients feel reassured knowing lawyers are operating in these types of multidisciplinary teams, particularly where the client is a legal department or in-house counsel. This is because the client feels like the lawyer already speaks their language and understands their problems at a deeper level than, for example, a data analyst might. There is a perception held by the client that the lawyer within the multidisciplinary team can help communicate the problem to the rest of the team when the problem is legal centric. However, this comfort level is likely to change where a law firm enables and encourages the other specialists within a multidisciplinary team to flourish and ensure their contributions are recognised in solving the client’s problem. Despite multidisciplinary teams being a new prospect in the legal profession, it’s clear that having lawyers involved in such collaborations, especially at this early stage of their existence in the profession, can be beneficial for client relationships and problem-solving perspectives.

One of the attributes often noted across these teams is the strong focus on purpose and values. Combining a group of specialists with a common purpose and team values should be a conscious and considered decision from the start. Jemima Harris, Head of Legal Operations & Tech at LOD, spoke with me about the importance values play in everyday life for her team. While values help to align diverse disciplines and attributes within people, they also help to create a common language within a multidisciplinary team. Reflecting back to our open-range zoo analogy, this ability to develop a common syntax also flows through to aligned processes and how the team solves problems together because they find a way to understand each other.

Why would you build a multidisciplinary team within a law firm?

A large number of law firms have a hierarchical and siloed structure. While it is valuable for lawyers to pursue specialisms within the Law, they often face pressures from clients and members of the profession to take a more inclusive approach to solving problems and applying their skills. A survey undertaken by BDO of 50 law firm leaders within global and national firms, as well as in depth interviews with managing and senior partners demonstrates that this pressure is only going to increase.

Research demonstrates that diversity of skill and thought produces richer outcomes within a team than an environment where a single or dominant skill prevails. This is because diverse teams enable people to become more aware of and challenge their own biases, assumptions and entrenched ways of thinking. Large organisations, such as Google, have reported that teams working together with an aligned purpose are likely to be more effective at working together and solving problems than those working in siloes, or in teams that haven’t explicitly aligned their collective purpose. These types of teams have a positive ripple effect on the business. The impact is felt at the individual level and their contribution to the team, through stronger client relationships, and at the business level through better financial performance.

Setting law firms up for the future with multidisciplinary teams

The traditional hierarchy of a commercial law firm upholds a system and structure where leadership, goals, and rewards are set at the top of the organisation for others to follow. Kim Goodwin, author of Designing for the Digital Age, describes hierarchical teams in her lecture ‘Boosting Research and Design Adoption’ as siloed, where any dysfunction at the upper level—for example, at the partner level within a law firm—will impact the siloes beneath this layer. This is because the system of the hierarchy dictates that the siloes rely on the leadership layer for direction, both strategically and operationally. The high levels of collaboration, at a team and client level, are not enabled nor encouraged by virtue of the line-of-command processes in place. This is a systemic barrier that needs to change in law firms if they are to meet client a demands and the different ways to work supported by the evolution of technology – these things are changing how lawyers work with each other.

Client demands on law firms continue to evolve. They are acting as a trigger for changing the systemic barriers to, and reconstructing how, teams work in law firms and creating new opportunities for law firms in the process. Clients want their lawyers to be more like business partners—to understand how their market is changing and the resulting pressures they experience. Hilary Goodier, Partner and Chief Operating Officer at Ashurst Advance, stated in her interview with me that the way “legal problems have traditionally been solved in the profession is unlikely to be the most effective way to solve these new problems and demands”. There are opportunities for law firms to redefine value which is more aligned to these client expectations and understand that this may require an alternative team structure which will produce more effective results while fostering stronger client relationships by drawing on a team’s collective strengths.

Casting an eye into the future and overcoming systemic attitudes 

If law firms continue to view legal problems as lawyer centric and not client centric and consequently, fail to view the problems with a multidisciplinary lens, firms run the risk of continuing to work in silos, failing to deliver the more holistic solutions that clients need, and failing to develop and deploy contemporary best practices for building high performing teams. In the long term, clients will undoubtedly seek out those firms that can deliver what they need. They will also ultimately leave those that do not.

Looking at how other sectors and business leaders have solved similar problems—as well as drawing on learned experience—emboldened some of the research participants to embrace a multidisciplinary model for their own teams. In an interview with Denise Doyle, Specialist Legal Operations Consultant, we discussed the nuts and bolts of implementing change within a team of lawyers and other disciplines. Denise has an extensive background in working with accountants, however she distinguishes this from her first-time experience with lawyers in her former Telstra team. One of the techniques she describes in implementing change and solving problems with a legal team is ensuring people understand the story behind the change or the problem. She believes creating a safe environment for the team to be curious and ask questions is fundamental to the development and success of a team.

What if I want to build a multidisciplinary team in my practice?

In my next post, I will discuss how a different type of leadership is becoming more common within high performing multidisciplinary teams – one that encourages diversity of thought from a variety of perspectives and ultimately leads to stronger team cohesion, broadens the value creation for clients, and alternative revenue opportunities for firms.

I’ll also explore the remaining common attributes of multidisciplinary teams with reference to the Bannholzer, Metzeler and Roth (2019) ten traits of successful innovators framework and, how despite the benefits, there are still shortcomings to overcome.


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.