The Business Case for Teamwork Skills

This post, by Neil Hamilton and Verna Monson, Ph.D. comes from the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership blog and was published in Minnesota Lawyer on April 16, 2012

Over a century ago, entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie observed “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision – the ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Lawyers seek to obtain uncommon results for each client, and an effective lawyer has to develop excellent skills to work as a team both with each client and with the lawyers, staff, and others to address the client’s objectives efficiently.

This essay reviews highlights of empirical research on the importance of teamwork skills for the individual lawyer and for the law firm or law department. We then summarize the major findings of scholarly work on both the essential elements necessary for effective teamwork and dispel some myths about teamwork.

The Business Case for Teamwork Skills

Empirical research makes clear that it is in the enlightened self-interest of each law student and lawyer to learn strong teamwork skills and of each law firm or department to help lawyers develop such skills. Studies consistently show that both clients evaluating lawyers, and senior lawyers evaluating junior lawyers consider teamwork skills important for effective lawyering. In 2008, Berkeley professors Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck interviewed over 2,000 Berkeley law alumni, asking what attributes and skills each respondent (as client) would look for in hiring a lawyer to represent the respondent on an important matter. Working with others and planning and organization of the work with others were two of the seven major skill areas respondents wanted in a lawyer to represent them in an important matter. In a 2007 survey of law school clinicians on the most important attributes of an effective lawyer, South Carolina law professor Roy Stuckey found that “effective teamwork” and “effectiveness with diverse colleagues” were two of the most important attributes. Indiana law professor William Henderson reported in 2009 that senior partners at major law firms evaluated associates on 23 capacities and skills including teamwork and client engagement, commitment and responsiveness.

Research based on thousands of interviews and hundreds of empirical studies of groups over several decades concludes that groups that work cooperatively towards a common goal are more effective in terms of productivity and quality of work product than individuals working alone. Similarly, groups that are highly adept at giving and receiving constructive feedback and making ongoing improvements are more effective than groups that are not as capable in these processes.

Other studies of teamwork in business, medicine and government show that effective teamwork is correlated with increased customer loyalty, reduction of medical errors, and reduced group -think, where group members who have strong contributions to make remain silent rather than disagree with the majority opinion. Scholars have found that the ability to work effectively on a team is a critical competence in the legal, medical, nursing, and related health professions, and in management, the military, civil aviation, law enforcement, and in intelligence and defense work.  Students also benefit from effective teamwork skills. In a 2008 meta-analysis that examined over 148 studies involving more than 17,000 students, researchers found that positive interpersonal relationships with peers in cooperative learning groups accounted for 33% of the variance associated with academic achievement.

Research finds that effective teams make better decisions than individuals, and organizational performance improves with effective teamwork. This occurs because specialization and expertise are becoming increasingly necessary in solving complex problems. Working across multiple disciplines and specialties is no longer an option, but a necessity. Team members whose expertise and roles are interdependent are able to solve tough problems better than individuals. When team members receive mentoring and interpersonal support, organizational performance is enhanced.

Read the complete entry on the Holloran Center blog »