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Harvard Study Part II: Collaboration Strategies for Rainmakers

June 1, 2015, 6:28 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a scholar at Harvard Law School who is writing a book about the legal profession. This article is the second of a three-part series and serves as the foundation for a chapter in her forthcoming book. Read Part One .

By Heidi Gardner, Distinguished Scholar, Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession

True rainmakers don’t need to be convinced to collaborate: referring work to colleagues and developing a loyal team capable of extraordinary client service is the only way they can build an enormous portfolio. But for many of today’s law firm partners, the link between collaboration and professional success is ambiguous. Is collaboration the source of success, or is it a mere byproduct of rainmakers’ triumphs? When faced with definite rewards for boosting their own billables, does it make sense to hand off work to others? Why should they risk precious control over a client by getting more partners involved?

In our last post, we started to debunk some of the myths surrounding rainmaking, such as the one that holds them up as inimitable heroes who are born with exceptional charisma. One of the actual reasons behind rainmakers’ seemingly magical attainment is far easier to attain: Collaboration – that is, getting more partners involved in work that you originate – is one of the biggest predictors of a partner’s future success in generating work from both existing and new clients.

This time we share additional empirical findings, based on our research at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession , showing how collaboration can help kick-start the process for less-experienced partners (or associates!) and then help build momentum toward greater business development success.

Clearly, though, this sort of collaboration is neither easy nor seamless. We draw on our dataset, including surveys of hundreds of law firm partners across multiple firms, to explore typical barriers to collaboration for the “mere mortal”–that is, partners who have less experience with both collaboration and making rain. We conclude by laying out some practical steps that lawyers can take to leverage collaboration as a strategy toward greater client service and professional achievement.

Collaboration – that is, getting more partners involved in work that you originate – is one of the biggest predictors of a partner’s future success

Collaboration drives rainmaking revenues

Our research shows that rainmakers who collaborate – that is, share the work that they originate –end up with significantly bigger books of business than those who tend to hoard work. To illustrate, how collaboration enhances a professional’s ability to generate business, let’s compare two nearly identical lawyers using an example that was first published in Harvard Business Review a few months ago.

[Image “Gardner graphic” (src=]

Two partners in the same practice area at the same firm graduated from law school the same year. They billed nearly the same number of hours in a given year, but the diagram clearly shows that they spent those hours very differently. Lawyer 1 brought six other partners into client work he generated, half of whom were from outside his own practice area (as shown by the gray instead of aqua dots). Lawyer 2 involved more than 30 other partners in his client work, two-thirds of them from outside his practice. Lawyer 2’s cross-practice approach paid off: Total revenue that year from his clients was more than four times higher than revenue from Lawyer 1’s. Although this illustration can’t tell us whether collaboration led to the increased revenue or was a result of it, the link is worth investigating, right?

Our research examining outcomes over a decade actually shows a clear causal pattern: we find that rainmakers who systematically involve other partners in their work benefit by significantly growing their books of business in coming years, even controlling for the size of the rainmaker’s book in the starting year. In other words, no matter how much work the partner generates this year, if they refer that work to other partners rather than hoarding it, then their origination amount will increase significantly the next year. This pattern holds even after controlling for other factors that are likely to affect individual billings, such as one’s office, practice group, organizational tenure, and previous year’s billings. We’ve now replicated these findings using data from multiple law firms that vary in size, geographic scope, and compensation system.

At a finer-grained level, we can pull apart the effects on building business with existing versus new clients. Analyses show that the biggest effects on subsequent-year revenue come from a rainmaker’sexistingclients: the more she involves partners from both her own and other practices, the more work she generates from her current clients. Fornewclients, cross-practice collaboration is an even stronger predictor of long-term revenue growth.

How does this work? The simplest explanation is a mere delegation effect: the more work you can hand off, the more time you can spend prospecting for new work. Moreover, you’ve now built a scouting unit that can better understand the client’s needs and seek out novel opportunities. Even bigger benefit stem from collaborating across practices: learning. As you learn more about other practices and how they add value to clients, you gain the ability to have broader strategic conversations. You not only understand the jargon and assumptions in other domains, but you also gain a whole new set of lenses to examine your clients’ problems through.

It’s not that cross-practice collaboration makes you an expert in another area, but you learn enough to spot issues and at least open up those conversations that you previously considered out of bounds. With more experience, you gain confidence to move up the food chain as your initial client starts to draw you onto bigger issues. One tax lawyer, for example, started by using her employment and real estate partners to help advise her client’s tax director about approaches their firm had delivered to clients in related industries. The client began looking smarter in his own meetings, and over time drew the legal trio into settings where they, too, had the chance to advise on more sophisticated work. This exposure gave them more insights about where and how to add value, and they continued growing the scope of expertise and practices involved. Revenues from this client have soared.

The simplest explanation is a mere delegation effect: the more work you can hand off, the more time you can spend prospecting for new work.

Collaboration drives reputation, rates and retention

What’s more, cross-practice collaboration helps to boost lawyers’ marketplace reputation, as indicated by clients’ willingness to pay more per hour for them. Across law firms we studied, we found that the more cross-discipline projects partners worked on, and the more complex each one was, the more their hourly rates increased in following years. Again, these analyses all statistically controlled for alternative predictors of rates such as a partner’s practice, office, seniority, gender and other variables; we still find that cross-practice collaboration experience is a very robust determinant of a partner’s ability to raise rates faster than his peers in the same firm who do more siloed work. Clients recognize your ability to provide strategic direction, not just technical legal advice. They’re willing to reward you for that counsel and for your prowess at running big matters or deals that deliver the most value on their most sophisticated issues.

Furthermore, clients become stickier and usually more profitable when they’re served by cross-practice teams. Clients might view any given lawyer as fairly fungible (except for those with uniquely specialized expertise – but how many can really claim this?). But they find it difficult to find substitutes for entire cross-practice teams. Similarly, cross-specialty work is likely to be less subject to price-based market competition. Whereas clients view single-specialty legal expertise as a commodity that can be bid out and sourced based on price, they know that cross-specialty work is more sophisticated and harder to accomplish effectively. They’re willing to pay for it. As the CFO of a major multinational just told me, “Margins rise with complexity.”

Common obstacles to collaboration – real and perceived

The obvious question, then, is why so many partners resist collaboration if it provides such obvious gains. First, these gains take time to materialize – it’s not as if a partner’s rack rate jumps the first time he completes a complex transaction. Weighed against the perceived risks of collaborating, lawyers who do the cost-benefit analysis (even if only loosely) quickly see that collaboration is unlikely to pay off – at least not in the short run when they’re driven by the pressures to boost their own chargeable hours and books of business.

The obvious question, then, is why so many partners resist collaboration if it provides such obvious gains.

Our research reveals more subtle issues, too. Across many law firms, hundreds of partners have responded to our survey asking about obstacles they face in collaborating among peers. Here are four of the most frequently cited barriers:

  1. Competence trust: Can I trust that the partner I bring into my client won’t screw up? Concerns about technical expertise appear most often in firms that have grown through recent mergers, where partners often doubt that everyone who got scooped up into the combined firm would have passed the test if they’d been individually interviewed. Much more often we hear worries about professionalism, responsiveness and other client-handling protocols. Research undertaken by Harvard’s Center on the Legal Profession confirms that lawyersoughtto worry about this issue: CLOs reported that they are likely to reduce work given not only to the specific lawyer who underperformed but that a majority of those penalties (54%) encompassed the entire team and/or department of the underperforming individual. This negative halo effect can last for years.

  • 3. Interpersonal trust: Is there a risk that the aggressively competitive partner will undermine my relationship in order to get work of his own? Or that the hotshot new lateral will try to steal my client? Even people who don’t believe that their own colleagues would deliberately sabotage them still often harbor worries about losing control, not getting enough credit, and so on. These fears arise more in firms with extensive lateral hiring, but they’re surprisingly common across many firms. International expansion also feeds these concerns because cross-cultural misunderstandings or stereotypes often feed into the beliefs. (When I say “unlikely to return calls on weekends” does any particular office spring to mind?)

  • 5. Confidence & capability to dig into client’s real issues:The biggest complaint we hear from General Counsel is that their lawyers fail to understand their business – indeed, most GCs I interview suggest that few of their outside counsel evenaskabout the GC’s pressing concerns outside the narrow domain of the task at hand. Lawyers admit to being hesitant to introduce topics where they’re not the expert, and many are terrified of walking into a meeting with a one-question agenda: “What’s keeping you up at night?”. This hesitation means that many partners miss the chance to find ways that their colleagues from other practice groups could truly add value; instead they’re stuck trying pitch work to unreceptive clients who don’t need that type of service. No wonder clients hate to be “cross-sold” – it’s entirely different than collaborating across boundaries to bring the right experts to bear on a client’s complex problem.

  • 7. Lack of knowledge about your own firm’s offerings: Even if a lawyer uncovers opportunities to serve a client on broader, cross-practice issues – or when reacting to a client’s request for additional kinds of expertise – a partner needs to know how his own firm’s offerings map onto that need. As one lawyer said, “I lack knowledge about what my firm can credibly do – or not do.” That deficiency often prohibits lawyers from building a cross-practice offering that clients would value.

Solutions for rainmakers: Fostering collaboration

[Image “gear-546162_640" (src=]Despite the prevalence of these obstacles, it’s clear that some lawyers in every single firm have figured out how to collaborate effectively in order to develop, grow and retain highly valuable clients. One of their strategies is perseverance, because collaboration does tend to pays off with experience. Once they build their collaborative network and develop a cadre of experts whose competence and character they trust, the risks decrease, as do the coordination costs. As they learn the jargon, technical approaches, and assumptions of other, they can work with peers more efficiently. In short, over time the costs fall and the benefits rise – but only if you stick with collaboration long enough.

Certain additional strategies can help professionals reap more benefits from collaboration sooner by directly tackling the barriers mentioned above.

1. Competence trust: Figure out who plays a brokering role in firm – not necessarily formal leaders, but partners who have a large network and are willing to be honest with you about others’ strengths and weaknesses. Ask them to refer you to partners who are likely to fit well with your client’s needs – not only their expertise, but also their work and communication styles, and any other factors that might help you judge their potential “fit” with your client.

Over time, build a cadre of trusted colleagues whose expertise you can count on. One low-risk way of testing others’ capabilities is by working with them on a third partner’s matter; this strategy hinges on your developing a network by doing work originated by other partners. So, next time a colleague rings you to ask for your input on their client, rather than weighing the opportunity costs (time you could have spent developing your own clients), re-frame the situation as your chance to build develop contacts whom you might tap in future.

One low-risk way of testing others’ capabilities is by working with them on a third partner’s matter.

2. Interpersonal trust: One firm I work with has a psychotherapist on retainer; he spends a day or more each week with partners helping them work through personal and interpersonal issues that arise in their work – and he says that “trust issues” are some of his clients’ most prevalent ones. His experience suggests that all but the most psychologically vulnerable partners can learn to develop trust, but that it often takes many repeated, safe interactions before people get comfortable. The problem is especially acute for lateral hires because they not only don’t know whom to turn to, but others are potentially avoiding them for the reasons mentioned above. One of the safest ways to figure out whose character to trust is to use referencing: just as “honest brokers” inside the firm can help you find someone with the right expertise, they should be able to recommend people whose character meets your standards, too.

Another thing to keep in mind: quality attracts like quality. If you act with integrity – sharing credit where it’s due, giving people constructive and honest feedback rather than talking about their mistakes behind their backs, bending over backwards to be transparent about your client relationships --you’re much more likely to be a magnet for other trustworthy partners.

One firm I work with has a psychotherapist on retainer.

3. Confidence & capability to dig into client’s real issues:First, you need to develop a genuine interest in the client’s business – not just their legal issues. What do they read on a regular basis? You should read those publications to get an insider perspective on what matters in their industry. One lawyer who serves clients in the luxury goods sector subscribes toWomen’s Wear Dailyfor this reason – despite the odd looks he gets from his postman!

Second, learn about a few core business concepts that are helpful for understanding companies’ strategy, operations, or commercial environment. You don’t need an MBA to start a conversation about the client’s competitors, for example, but you’ll be better equipped if you’ve learned some of the business fundamentals. Executive education courses that are geared to lawyers will help you put the knowledge into practice most easily (I can recommend some great ones – and not just at Harvard Law School, in case you’re wondering).

Third, pair up with someone in your firm who’s great at holding these sorts of “business insight” conversations with clients. It might be another partner, but consider also someone in your business development or marketing function, for example. Those individuals can be treasure troves of untapped wisdom, and many would be thrilled to help make an impact directly with clients.

Finally, you have keep the faith that you’ll get better at these conversations with practice. In the meantime, as one experienced lawyer said, “If you’re willing to put yourself out there, be prepared for it to go badly, and then have a laugh if it does. If you’ve got an honest curiosity about their business, clients will most often respect that you’re trying to learn, even you’re a bit clunky at first.” If you find yourself paralyzed at this thought, consider turning to a professional coach or licensed psychotherapist to address the underlying reasons. (If you think I’m joking, then you’d probably be surprised how prevalent this practice is among your client executives – and increasingly, among your competitors in the legal arena).

First, you need to develop a genuine interest in the client’s business – not just their legal issues. What do they read on a regular basis?

4. Lack of knowledge about your own firm’s offerings: Use every chance you can – from firm retreats to casual conversations around the office – to ask your fellow partners what they’re working on. Again, authenticity matters: you need to be truly curious to learn, rather than just pump them for information.

Tell colleagues about the hot button issues in your sector, and ask whether they’ve seen that in the industry where they focus. Clients might really value some input that you think is tangential. For example, the CLO of a major financial institution recently shared with me his biggest desire from his outside lawyers, “What keeps me up at night is the huge regulatory burden. I know that these firms also serve big pharma, aerospace, and some other massively regulated industries, but they’ve never once offered to send someone along from those sectors to talk to me about what it’s like to work in such an environment. If they did, I’d give them hours.”

And when’s the last time you perused your own firm’s website? It’s probably filled with insights about your firm’s latest deals, client wins, sector insights, and thought leadership. Many partners I meet know less about their own firm’s offerings than the public can find online with a few clicks.

And when’s the last time you perused your own firm’s website?

Summing up and next steps: You’re now equipped with a clear rationale for collaborating: rainmakers who share the work that they originate end up with significantly bigger books of business, higher rates, and stickier clients than those who tend to hoard work. You’ve also got some practical steps to take to overcome the obstacles. The benefits won’t flow in immediately, but you need to kick-start collaboration to help build greater business development momentum. The returns over time will far outweigh your investment.

Part Three of this series will focus on barriers and solutions for experienced rainmakers who are looking to take their client accounts to the next level.

I am writing a book based on this research to be published by Harvard Business Press next year, and this article appearing on Big Law Business will serve as a foundation for one of the chapters. I’m currently developing a Board of Contributors to periodically review preliminary ideas from the manuscript and provide input, critiques, and examples. If you’re interested, please contact