July 31, 2017

Know the Five Qualities of a Great Trial Team

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

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Most of the civil cases we work on are big cases. It’s not a lone lawyer with a briefcase, it is a team: several senior attorneys, associates, paralegals, and in-house counsel. That’s the team that needs to work together through the long haul of the lead-up to trial, and that’s the team that needs to wrestle with the difficult strategic decisions on whether and how to proceed and prepare. Some parts of that team are forced together, but other parts, especially the parts on the law firm side, are the products of the choices made by the lead counsel who builds the team. And like all teams, there are some qualities that make it more or less effective.

The old-school intuition is that, to make a great team, you just take the best people and put them together. But the more research is done on effective teams, the more we are understanding that there is more to it than that. And one company that has dedicated itself to discovering what really makes for a great team is Google. As discussed in a couple of recent articles (in Inc and The New York Times), Google has been fixated on the idea of building the perfect team. So the company initiated a project, “Project Aristotle,” and reviewed 50 years of academic studies, and spent 2 years looking at 180 of their own teams. They measured and analyzed more than 250 variables about those teams, using an algorithm to discover which traits were shared by the teams most likely to stick together and most likely to produce creative and high-value results. The result? Successful teams share five critical traits or group norms. In this post, I will share those traits and discuss their application to trial teams. 

Dependability

A great team meets expectations and deadlines. That means that, as a group and as individual members of that group, you do what you say you’re going to do. On a trial team, the main challenge to dependability is going to be the work load. Quite often, there is more to do than time to do it. In that context, the effective team has a clear group norm: Don’t make excuses, but do prioritize, delegate, and most of all, be honest with yourselves on what is possible.

Structure and Clarity

A great team has clear goals and well-defined roles. Within the trial team, though, leadership can be ambiguous. Is it the senior trial counsel, is it the local attorney who knows the jury and the judge, or is it the in-house attorney who is, after all, the client? Wherever it is, make it clear. And also make sure everyone knows what their role is. I recall one large-scale and long-term trial I worked on, with about a dozen attorneys and about three dozen witnesses. One thing was critical in keeping that team together: the meeting every evening to review who was doing what for the next 24 hours.

Meaning

A great team does work that has personal relevance and reward to individual members. The notion of relevance and reward can be tricky in law. In most cases, of course the provision of legal services is a business. Firms and individual lawyers do it for a profit, for plaintiffs a high verdict, for defendants a high number of billable hours, and for both, hopefully, a happy client and the prospect of further work. But to make a good team, there should be more. Most of us who turn to law are drawn to the field, to some extent at least, by the engagement of a logical and legal battle. We’re drawn to it because it’s fun. Good teams and good team members remember that.

Impact

A great team is motivated by the belief that they’re having an effect, influencing the greater good. This is similar to the previous trait, meaning, but the difference is that the focus is on the overall effect, and not just the personal interest at stake. In other words, what do we get other than the share of the verdict or the billable hours? Is there a benefit beyond that? Is there a way in which the world will be better, even a tiny bit, if you win this case? This is not the exclusive province of plaintiffs, since defendants can also be fighting to defend a principle (fairness, equity, justice) or for a pragmatic benefit. Ultimately, good team members should keep in mind that there is a valuable outcome at stake.

Psychological Safety

To Google, the most important trait is this last one: A great team allows the group, and all members of the group, to be able to participate without fear of being attacked and without worrying about being seen as  incompetent. Quoted in The New York Times article, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’ That kind of psychological safety can be an elusive concept within the crucible of the trial team. Obviously it is a self-critical group, and testing ideas is really the point of the whole enterprise. In that setting, the ability to argue actually helps. So, a good team embodies the norm that it is okay to disagree, even with the more senior attorney, the team captain, or the client. Support decisions once they are made, but hash it out within the team, safely, prior to that time.

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Other Posts on Teams: 

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Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license. 

 

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