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Why We Collaborate (Part 3 of 5)

By Ty Supancic, Esquire

Changing Our Paradigm

We believe that in order to excel as masters of collaborative methods and techniques, we must apply them as often as possible. Given that the vast majority of our waking time is spent at work, work is the best place to develop and exercise these new skills. To that end, we have a unique management structure at TLC. The vast majority of law firms and businesses in general are ruled by a hierarchical system; managing partners supervising partners, supervising associates, etc. The classic “top down management” system. At TLC we practice a heterarchical system of management. That is, we collaborate in office management decisions and day-to-day operations.

At TLC we have group meetings where we attempt to solve problems and make decisions collaboratively. Rather than one person dictating the color of the paper for a particular form , we try to choose the color collaboratively. Rather than just the partners or a committee writing the mission statement, firm values, and the procedures manual, the whole staff painstakingly collaborated on everything. One thing we’ve learned is that a decision which one person can make in an instant, may take hours to make collaboratively.

Collaboration is not the quickest method of problem solving. If measuring only time, it is not at all efficient. But if the desired outcome is one with profound long-term impact, it is the most effective method. The time we spend collaborating on internal office issues is an investment in developing collaborative skills and instincts. They say that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Collaborating with your co-workers all day is like standing in front of a great tool chest with all the drawers open.

If we are to become masters of this new technology, this technology so foreign to professionals trained and indoctrinated in adversarial and positional dispute resolution, it must become our second nature. No, it must become our first nature. Sensitive matters may not withstand a non-collaborative or aggressive response to a problem. Since either party can unilaterally withdraw from the Collaborative process and disqualify both attorneys from further representation, each response to conflict must originate from the right mindset.

If an attorney is sitting at her desk, making unilateral decisions, dictating procedure, making hierarchical demands, she is not in the right mindset to deal with a call from her client or opposing counsel on a Collaborative case. It is too easy to fall back into habits which do not foster or support collaboration. We can easily take a case sideways with just a few words coming from the wrong mindset. How can we expect our clients and opposing counsel to “collaborate” when the stakes are high if we can’t collaborate in the low-stakes day-to-day operation of our office?

We have seen Collaborative Law cases, where well-intentioned parties have made significant progress, unravel due to “good” traditional lawyering. In order to negotiate the minefield of conflict, one must proceed with caution at all times. Instinct and gut reactions are important, but they must originate in a place of commitment to the goals expressed by the parties. An attorney who is representing a party in a CDR case must remember that the scope of their representation requires that they adhere to good CDR protocols. Ignoring that fact ignores the scope of representation and violates the rules of professional conduct.

We’ve heard opposition to this approach; “What about your litigated cases, won’t they suffer? Won’t you lose your edge?” No, old instincts are hard to kill. Trying to think collaboratively all the time does nothing to dull our deep inbred fight or flight instinct.

Part 1 – Why We Collaborate and Collaborative Problem Solving
Part 2 – The Collaborative Paradigm
Part 3 – Changing Our Paradigm
Part 4 – Leading By Example
Part 5 – God is in the Details