The era of Mason, Matlock is over

The trend of a strong individual carrying
a case through the legal maze has given way to the concept
of team lawyering


The traditional model of the lawyer is the strong, all-knowing individual who single-handedly guides the client through the legal maze. You know -- Matlock, or Mason.

Now filtering in from the business world is something completely different -- the concept of "team lawyering." This is a dynamic model of strategic alliances of lawyer groups which are designed to bring enhanced resources and synergism to a particular case or transaction without adding organizational layers or overhead.

"Team Lawyering for the 90s" will be explored in detail in a seminar to be offered by the Law Practice Management Section at the State Bar's Spring Section Education Institute in Monterey, May 17-19.

The business world is increasingly turning to teamwork as a solution to the productivity problem. Quality circles can lower costs and ensure quality. Strategic partnerships can permit entry to new markets. As a result of these developments, clients are increasingly familiar with business arrangements that involve assembling effective teams. No wonder, then, that clients want lawyers who can assemble cooperative combinations of legal expertise when the situation merits it.

Joan Haratani, a litigator with Crosby, Heafy, Roach & May handling breast implant work, frequently finds herself a member of a team composed of lawyers from several different firms. She reports that litigating with an effective team is invigorating, powerful and stress reducing.

Team players

Mutual respect is a key, she says. "I take care to select people who won't let me down and who communicate well with each other," says Haratani. "This reduces monitoring and follow-up activities. Effective teams require effective team players."

Pat Kayajanian, now head of the six-office legal department of Farmers Insurance Exchange, remembers a case in which her former law firm, an insurance defense firm, teamed up Johnnie Cochran in a sizeable personal injury matter. Her firm handled all the discovery and motion work, which they were well-equipped to do, while Cochran handled the jury trial. "It's crucial to have your roles and responsibilities well defined," says Kayajanian.

But wait. It's no secret that the typical lawyer's approach to teamwork goes something like this: "Everybody do as I say and no one will get hurt."

Competitive behavior

American culture in general emphasizes competitive rather than cooperative behavior. The training of American lawyers focuses almost exclusively on the mastery of self and of subject matter, not on cooperative processes.

While being an effective team player may not come naturally to American lawyers, the experts say it can be learned. What makes a good team? What makes a good team player? Don't assume your high school football or debate team experience will help you much. In Team Players and Teamwork, The New Competitive Business Strategy (Jossey-Bass, 1990), Glenn M. Parker explores 11 characteristics of an effective team.

A good team

1. The "atmosphere" tends to be informal with no obvious tensions and no boredom.

2. There is a lot of discussion and participation, which remains pertinent to the task.

3. The task or objective of the group is well understood and accepted by the members.

4. The members listen to each other.

5. There is disagreement which is not suppressed but is carefully examined with the expectation of finding a solution.

6. Most decisions are reached by a kind of consensus.

7. Criticism is frequent, frank and relatively comfortable and without personal attack. Criticism is oriented toward removing an obstacle to the group's objective.

8. There are few "hidden agendas." Everybody appears to know how everybody else feels about any matter under discussion.

9. When action is taken, clear assignments are made and accepted.

10. The chairman of the group does not dominate it. Leadership may shift as different members act as "resources" for the group.

11. The group is self-conscious about its own operations. It will stop to examine how well it is doing or what may be interfering with its operation.

Avoiding obstacles

What are the obstacles to successful team lawyering? Most of us have had frustrating experiences with groups that were ineffective. Many groups seem to spend an inordinate amount of time while accomplishing little.

Other groups may accomplish their work, but the process leaves members feeling ill-used and unwilling to work with the team again. "Most lawyers need teamwork training," says Kayajanian.

Additionally, there are legitimate concerns about protecting the relationship with the client.

"This is a matter of choosing the right people and developing understandings going in about respecting existing relationships," says Larry Kohn of Kohn Communications, a legal marketing consultant.

"Team lawyering can strengthen performance and can be excellent for future business."

Kayajanian, Haratani and Kohn will explore the team as a mechanism for strategic advantage in law practices in "Beyond the Dream Team: Team Lawyering in the 90s," at the Monterey Spring Institute, May 19, 10:15 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.

Donna Beck Weaver, member of the Los Angeles firm of Trope & Trope and former chair of the State Bar's Law Practice Management Section, can be reached at