Three weeks ago many of us were glued to our television sets for the NCAA final game between Duke and Butler. It was one of the most exciting  NCAA final game ever. Players on both teams played as a team and the coaching was outstanding. Watching it made me think of how well lawyers play as a team.

They say business school teaches MBA students to collaborate and law school teaches law students to compete. If that is true, then it is no wonder why some law firms, offices or practice groups are made up of individual lawyers who are focused on themselves. 

My old firm and many other law firms remind me of the 2004 US Olympic basketball team. Very few firms remind me of the 2008 team, or the Duke and Butler teams we saw three weeks ago.  David Maister wrote about this problem in Are Law Firms Manageable? One humorous point Maister made was: 

If lawyers deal with each other so poorly, why do they do so well financially? My answer is only partly humorous: The greatest advantage lawyers have is that they compete only with other lawyers.

David Maister is right. I remember several years ago the great fear law firms had about the prospect they might some day have to compete against accounting firms.

The 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team included the most talented NBA players, but took a third-place bronze medal because the players had a “me first” attitude, and were less focused on the basics than the Argentine and Italian teams.

With Coach Mike Krzyzewski coaching, the 2008 U. S. Olympic team got back to basics and teamwork. The players may have been less talented than the 2004 team, but they built a team and focused on fundamentals. Coach K spent three years molding what became known as “The Redeem Team.” When they won a hard fought final game against Spain, the entire team showed up for the press conference. Coach K had built a relationship with the players that not only caused them to win for him, but also caused them to want to win for each other. Coach K proved once again that there is no ‘I’ in teamwork. Somehow, he got superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to suppress their egos and concentrate on the team.

What does the difference between the 2004 team and the 2008 team have to do with your firm? If your firm’s lawyers have a “me first” attitude focused and getting credit, it will be very hard to develop a collaborative effort. If your firm is focused on primarily on billable hours and profit per partner, it will be very hard to get your lawyers to anticipate client issues and provide solutions better than your competitors. Bottom line if your firm is like the 2004 team you will eventually lose to firms that focus on hiring, training and retaining the best talent, molding them into a team and providing exceptional service to clients.

If you are trying to get the members of your firm, office or practice group to collaborate and put the team ahead of themselves, here is assignment for you. Read Coach K’s book: The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team and see if you can lead the way Coach K did.