What characteristics do you need in a successful multidisciplinary team involving lawyers?
03 May 2021

What characteristics do you need in a successful multidisciplinary team involving lawyers?

Published on 03 May 2021

In this post, I take a deep dive into the characteristics of successful multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession. I also discuss shortcomings and how change is evolving in this area too.

How Ten Traits of Successful Innovators helped establish a baseline

In developing the framework for the interviews undertaken for this research,  I reviewed the Bannholzer, Metzeler and Roth (2019) Ten Traits of Successful Innovators framework (BMR Framework). I used this as the theoretical basis for identifying the critical characteristics that make up successful innovation teams (more on that below). Typically, this framework is  a tool for leaders to better understand these traits and apply that knowledge in assessing their own team. I adapted it for my research because it is a challenge for CEOs to identify ‘intrapreneurs’ who can bring new products to market, while at the same time balancing a delicate mix of commercial and technical skill required to make these products successful. Hiring externally for these roles can be equally challenging as new staff need to learn and navigate the intricacies of a complex organisation quickly in order to be effective.

The framework is not designed in such a way that a single person would demonstrate all ten traits, or only inhabit one. It is more likely that a person in a team would possess a few dominant traits while demonstrating others less frequently or not at all. An individual’s dominant traits may also change depending on the situation dynamic and time in the role.

In choosing this framework, I also made an assumption that multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession are solving problems in an innovative way for clients. Through understanding the type of work these teams engage in, such as legal transformation, legal technology strategy, and e-discovery engagements, I was able to successfully test and affirm this assumption.

After each interview, I compared the responses to my questions with the BMR Framework to help identify common themes or contrasts between teams. Using the BMR Framework as a basis for understanding what traits and behaviours may exist in high performing multidisciplinary teams and coupled with my additional research, I then developed a set of characteristics that speak specifically to what makes up a multidisciplinary team within the legal profession.

The five key characteristics of a multidisciplinary team in the legal profession

Of the many characteristics I identified which make up successful multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession, the five I discuss below, consistently played an essential role in helping to build, align, and maintain this type of team. The impact of these characteristics was also felt throughout the organisation, especially at the leadership level, in how business systems and processes evolve, within the team, and among the individuals who are part of the team.

Characteristic 1: Diversity of skill, knowledge, and perspective

Multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession are more than just a mix of different disciplines working together. The individuals in these teams encourage and rely on the different perspectives and knowledge in the team to generate new and creative ways of solving problems and delivering value for clients.

Mel Scott, Senior Legal Counsel (Global) at Megaport, described how she regularly relies on team members’ strengths and the way in which they complement each other. Mel’s role in the company affords her diversity of input from different team members, business units, and experience. At the start of a new project, such as entering into a new territory market overseas, Mel described the types of team members and disciplines that might be involved to ensure the project is successful: a mix of business development, project management, technology specialists, legal, and finance. The team lean on Mel’s experience in the early phases of the project to complete a legal task-based goal, such as due diligence, as well as seeking her input throughout the project but this time focussing on her commercial empathy, curiosity, and experience in the team. Mel has made a conscious effort to build a reputation of approachability and helpfulness at Megaport. This characteristic sees her contribute to projects with deep contextual understanding, not simply ticking a skill set box. This type of strong collaboration is encouraged at Megaport and is an example of how a team made up of different expertise can genuinely support and complement each other to drive forward the goals of the company.

Research also demonstrates diverse teams are linked to stronger business success than homogenous teams. In 2011, a study conducted by Katrin Talke, Søren Salomo, and Alexander Kock from the University of Hamburg, found that management teams produced more innovative products if they were made up of a broader range of work and education backgrounds. Additionally, in a 2017 survey of fifty law firm leaders, BDO reported that managing partners believed, as a group of professionals, technologists, non-legal business professionals, and paralegals would see the most growth in the delivery of legal services in the future. Of the global and national law firms interviewed in the survey, it was the national law firm partners who were identified as the most likely to bring non-legal business professionals into equity partnership in the future. These findings demonstrate the profession’s awareness of alternative team structures then, and provide perspective in assessing the presence of multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession today.

Having the team understand each other’s expertise and how they can rely on complementary skills also builds strength and rapport within the group. Mick Sheehy, Director of PwC New Law, discussed how these skills “fill the gaps” in teams. In his interview with me, Mick described how “the individuals [in the team] have a good degree of understanding about the rest of the team’s expertise”. They share complex problems and, in this way, “the gaps are felt less”. From the client’s perspective, they experience one fluid team: not a group of individuals.

Diversity of skill and perspective help build strong multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession. This structure enables people to rely on each other’s strengths, build and foster effective relationships.

Characteristic 2: Multidisciplinary teams require strong leadership to be successful

Strong leadership emerged is a critical factor in the success of a multidisciplinary team. Strong leaders are described in the BMR Framework as those who can “identify opportunities and inspire others to pursue them”. In my interviews with Denise Doyle, Specialist Legal Operations Consultant, and Katrina Gowans, National Legal Operations Lead at Origin Energy, both described the essential role played by strong leadership in high performing multidisciplinary teams: vision and direction must be articulated clearly in order for people to process change and find ways to contribute.

Hilary Goodier, Partner and Chief Operating Officer at Ashurst Advance, provided a first-hand example where strong leadership was critical to resetting the team’s direction and shifting mindsets. In a previous role, Hilary needed her new team to take on a significant mindset shift in order to become the successful team she knew they could be. Prior to her leadership, employees were considerably siloed in their work output and goals. It was important for the team to be aligned on the new, forward-facing vision, as well as the incremental goals required to help them get there. By focusing on working together to achieve the vision and then experiencing small and quick wins along the way, Hilary helped her team see a clear direction and purpose with the completion of each task and goal.

According to the BMR Framework, strong leadership also depends on fostering the success of each person in the team by knowing their capabilities, matching their strengths to the work they do, and encouraging collaboration. Collaboration characteristics, are critical in motivating a team, encouraging them to work to their strengths and contributing their perspectives. Anu Briggs, Head of Capability, Development and Change at Gilbert + Tobin, said that “it is the job of leaders to know their team so well that they can draw on their views.”

Characteristic 3: Curiosity must be able to flourish

Curiosity that leads to a willingness to consider different views, adopt a client first strategy, and apply different techniques to solving problems, is a distinguishing factor in how highly effective multidisciplinary teams in the legal profession can solve new and different problems for clients. A contemporary definition of curiosity is a “special form of information-seeking distinguished by the fact that it is internally motivated”. Some of the traits from the BMR Framework can also be referenced here in describing this characteristic. These are ‘uncovering’ and ‘generating’ abilities, as well as ‘absorbing’ qualities. These traits result in people being able to see possibilities within new contexts, identify highly valuable problems to solve, be able to communicate these value propositions to team members and clients, and pursue new ideas.

High performing teams hold an innate curiosity. These teams are constantly seeking to understand the ‘why’ or understand subject matter more deeply before jumping to a solution. This curiosity leads people to challenge convention and seek out new ideas. While this can be uncomfortable, it is precisely this willingness to sit in an unknown setting and work through the discomfort with their curiosity that ensures teams made up of different backgrounds and expertise thrive.

A large proportion of teams referenced in my interviews were made up of people already working in the organisation or known to the leader of the team. While team members may have had a legal background, it was their preparedness to engage with their curiosity, put the client problem at the centre of their work, acquire new skills, and be genuinely committed to working on legal problems differently, that helped build the multidisciplinary and innovative aspects of the group. Mick Sheehy described the type of curiosity he looks for in a person as “multi-faceted” i.e. someone who is curious not just about solving problems for clients, but the different ways in which issues are tackled – this results in better value for clients and strengthens the overall capability of the team.

In a profession that does not always encourage or enable curiosity to flourish, it is this characteristic that helps set multidisciplinary teams apart in the legal profession and gives them an edge to perform better than their homogenous counterparts.

Characteristic 4: Multidisciplinary teams speak their own language

Multidisciplinary teams are like an open-range zoo. There are different species, or expertise, co-existing and speaking their own language. The challenge is to build a common language across the different disciplines so that you can get the best out of everyone in the team. A common language may include a mix of syntax, team alignment, and principles.

Jemima Harris, formerly Head of Legal Tech and Operations at LOD and now Legal and Strategic Projects Director at Megaport, spoke of the benefits in building a common language within a multidisciplinary team. She explained that a common language allows people to build context, to understand each other and know where someone is coming from.

Leading this type of team does present challenges though. In her previous team at LOD, Jemima managed a mix of lawyers and IT specialists. One of the challenges she faced in her role was being able to assess the work of someone who is a specialist in an area where she was less experienced. Over time she has learnt to ask more questions of these team members so that she built a deeper understanding of their perspectives and experience. One of the advantages she observed in the team overall, was its ability and willingness to pick up different skills when working in a structure that encouraged that approach.

The type of leadership style the manager or leader of a team chooses to embody will influence how successful the team is at crafting and maintaining a common syntax. In the article, Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams ( MIT Sloane Review), authors Lynda Gratton, Andreas Voigt, and Tamara J. Erickson noted that a defining factor in overcoming barriers within a diverse team was the way in which a leader uses task-oriented and relationship-oriented styles, as well as how they subsequently switch between the two in order to drive the team’s success. According to the authors, it is important to be task oriented as the team is becoming more established. However, they also noted, there needs to be an underlying sense of relationship building from leadership so that the team does more than socialise – it must build genuine connections.

As discussed earlier, Hilary Goodier’s example of focusing on quick wins with her team so that they could contribute to and be encouraged by the vision she was working towards, speaks to the balance needed between task-oriented duties and relationship building activities in order to cultivate a high performing team.

Leadership style is one way to guide and encourage a common language in a multidisciplinary team. Another consideration is ensuring that psychological safety exists in the organisation so that people are willing to experiment.

In 2014, Amy Edmonson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, described psychological safety in the workplace as being where a person, “will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” Creating psychological safety in an organisation does not mean reducing any level of ambition or accountability. It is about adding to the environment you build for your team.

In my interview with Jan Christie, Learning and Development Manager at Gilbert + Tobin, she described how essential it is for a leader to respect the team they are building and encourage psychological safety. “Everything else flows from [respect]”, she said. This enables space to be carved out for expression of views, values, and questions.

Anu Briggs described three steps as critical to foster psychological safety in the workplace. First, it starts with creating and encouraging a common mindset in the team. Using Edmonson’s definition, this is a mindset that accepts, encourages, and welcomes people speaking up without reprisal. Second, it is important that the organisation creates space for this mindset to exist. It must be a reality, not ‘in theory’. Third, reward the behaviour when people demonstrate this mindset so that this cultural structure can be maintained.

Anu described that G+T Innovate, led by Caryn Sandler, use their internal capability as a space for prototyping and experimenting with ideas before recommending them to a client. This enables team members to reflect, communicate their ideas to one another, and be open to changing an approach if it’s not solving the client’s problem. This regular practice at G+T Innovate, highlights the existence of psychological safety in the team and the willingness for team members to experiment and work through a problem together, as a multidisciplinary team.

Developing a common language and being able to communicate effectively with each other enables multidisciplinary teams to rely on and amplify each other’s strengths as well as apply their innate curiosity to understanding and solving complex problems. However, this is only possible, where there is strong leadership guiding, and directing the entire high-performing, multidisciplinary team towards success.

Characteristic 5: Purpose and values build teams for the future

Aligning the different expertise in a multidisciplinary team to a common purpose or set of values builds a more robust team. My last blog post suggested that teams aligned through purpose perform better overall than those who are not. There is an abundance of evidence to support this.

Jemima Harris discussed the importance LOD’s values played in her workday. They helped guide business and team decisions; enabled robust discussions; and, were useful in troubling times as they  acted as a beacon for decision-making. Additionally, values-based hiring helped Jemima identify the right people for the multidisciplinary team.

This type of recruitment enables a more structured hiring process that challenges bias and convention. In his book Work Rules, Lazlo Bock, former VP of People at Google, advocates for structured interviews and hiring people based on values alignment as a useful way to obtain different skills for a business and bring people together under a common set of principles.

Aligning a team through values and purpose can also act as a positive cultural driver. In my professional experience, I have found that values help align ambition and peoples’ sense of ‘why’ within with the team. A multidisciplinary entrepreneurial advisory firm that applies its purpose in their work, marketing, and recruitment is BlueRock. The firm provides holistic legal, accounting, digital, and wealth management services to entrepreneurs and business owners. Their website markets the multidisciplinary aspect of their business to prospective customers by emphasising BlueRock’s ability to protect, amplify, and grow their clients’ businesses. Client testimonials demonstrate the multidisciplinary approach in practice. On their recruitment page, BlueRock emphasises the team approach to collaboration and being inspired. The showcase of awards, such as Best Place to Work, and the B Corp certification also speaks to their focus on community impact and building an environment that their team love being a part of. 

The characteristics I have discussed in this post played a crucial role in building and maintaining the multidisciplinary teams that I examined as part of my research. These characteristics are multi-layered and for them to result in a high performing multidisciplinary team, there must be alignment with the business and commitment from all parties including senior management and the team. If that is achieved, then not only will the team be set up for success, but that will also flow through for the benefit of clients and the whole organisation.

All that glistens is not gold

Like any significant change, designing, building and maintaining a multidisciplinary team does not happen overnight. People need time to process and understand change. They need time to build new skills that help them maintain the changed structure over the long term. In her lecture, Boosting Research and Design Adoption, Kim Goodwin suggested that driving organisational change is a three-to-five-year process.

A common setback in achieving change that Anu Briggs mentioned was the propensity for lawyers to maintain a fixed mindset. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, described this type of mindset in a team or individual as including a fear of failure, running from difficulty or exhibiting learned helplessness. Maintaining this mindset can block someone from applying their curiosity and working effectively with the team to develop the common team language discussed earlier.

Another barrier Jan Christie spoke with me about was the notion that silos continue to exist in law firms – even where multidisciplinary teams are present. However, positive change is occurring. Jan has observed that increasing focus on diversity in law firms has resulted in steps towards more collaboration and openness in the legal profession. Jan also spoke about the ‘labelling’ issue fading i.e., that law firms are also increasingly recognising the many specialists working there and that lawyers are one profession within many. Jan believes this growing recognition of multiple professions will contribute to the growth of multidisciplinary teams in law firms and also breaks down the hierarchy of roles. This coupled with the findings of the 2017 survey of 50 law firm leaders by BDO that found non-legal business professionals would see considerable growth in national and global firms, suggests that barriers are continuing to break down and,  will be supported by and support a move towards more collaborative ways of working.

So where do I start if I want to build my own multidisciplinary team?

In my final post, I will describe a framework I have created from my research to help you identify characteristics for, and help you take the first steps toward, building a high performing multidisciplinary team in your firm.

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.