Journal of Leadership and the Law

Hierarchical Collaboration:
The Impact of Organizational Structure
on Communication, Cooperation, and Productivity
in the Law Firm Environment

Morgan Leigh FurmanBy Morgan Leigh Furman L’15

Steeped in tradition, the legal profession’s organizational structure is as institutionalized as its procedure and practice.  While law in the United States is studied and practiced through various organizations, one of the most prevalent establishments for legal practice is the conventional law firm.  Historically, the organizational structure of an archetypal law firm has been hierarchical in nature, embracing a pyramid-style configuration of roles.  In past generations, the hierarchical structure was motivated by numerous factors, but among them a top-down approach to delegation of tasks and work product.  As many modern law firms move toward a more collaborative operational model, how does the tiered organizational framework influence cooperation and productivity?

Prior to attending law school, I worked as a litigation paralegal at two law firms.  The experience I gained was invaluable not only in that it provided me with the tools and skills to approach law school and future job prospects, but also as an introduction to the organizational structure of one side of the legal industry and the roles, values, and dynamic of the people working within it.

This past summer I returned to the firm and worked as a summer associate.  As my new role was temporary and the goals and tasks less defined, I found myself in a position somewhere between a paralegal and an associate on the pyramid and was able to see with a combination of fresh eyes and prior experience how the organizational structure – specifically, who occupies what positions and what their roles and duties are – directly impacted the culture of the firm and the work product for each case.  At the particular small to mid-sized firm where I worked, the operational model is teamwork; it is a much more collaborative environment of shared responsibilities amongst partners, associates, paralegals, and legal assistants than many other (and often larger) firms.  Nevertheless, when the theoretical approach of collaboration meets the deep-seated practice of hierarchical delegation, it can present barriers for everyone involved in the process.

I spoke to some colleagues and former coworkers about this topic, and everyone was eager to discuss factors that come into play.  Age, gender, and level of experience were common elements notably affect power dynamics within the pyramid structure and can limit the positive effects of teamwork. But the biggest obstacle faced across the board is miscommunication; ironically, this could be one of the simplest barriers to overcome.  When looking at how to better communication and cooperation, one must ask - does the hierarchical structure need to be reevaluated in light of changing approaches to teamwork in law firms, or do the people filling these traditional roles simply need to redefine them?

Collaboration in a law firm embraces shared responsibilities, cooperation in completing tasks, and communication about the common goal and how best to accomplish it.  From an organizational standpoint, teamwork seems simple – people work together on how to delegate tasks, communicate on the status of said tasks, and combine efforts to efficiently create a strong work product.  But the reality is that applying a teamwork model to the existing hierarchy can present challenges that while seemingly affect the individual, will inescapably impact the work product as well.  When working in a team, communication is fundamental.  Yet because some people in the law firm team are in positions of authority and some are not, attitude, feedback, and approach to delegation take on a more significant role than they would in a flat organization.  If the partners approach the teamwork with an encouraging attitude, constructive feedback, and a collaborative outlook, it will often move down the chain of command and positively impact everyone on the team. Conversely, when the approach is littered with criticism, negativity, and miscommunication, the individual team members will absorb this, and the work product will suffer. 

While it may seem obvious that criticism and miscommunication are toxic in a teamwork model, they are all too residual from a tradition of hierarchy and difficult to eliminate.  The power dynamic in the conventional law firm comes from a model based on less collaboration and more of everyone filling their specific roles independently.  Poor communication and delegation can lead to low morale amongst team members in any role and can easily transfer to the rest of the group.

What is the remedy? When I first left the firm to attend law school, I noted that this firm embraced cooperation and generally left people with a feeling of job satisfaction that translated to better work product, as well as morale.  When I returned this summer, I recognized that this collaborative effort had only become institutionalized within the firm because of the specific efforts of individuals.  Perhaps for the modern law firm to move toward a collaborative model, it need not necessarily abandon the traditional hierarchical organizational structure, but rather ensure that the people filling the conventional roles embrace the values of cooperation, communication, and collaboration.  Hiring and training people in positions of authority in how best to guide their teams with a positive approach will cause a chain reaction.  If attorneys in positions of authority are skilled at motivating others, providing constructive feedback, and striving for strong communication, this should in turn influence the values of the other team members.  Ultimately, inspiring associates, paralegals, legal assistants – whatever their titles may be – to embrace a collaborative approach will lead to a new generation of individuals who inherently embrace teamwork in the law firm setting.

Better yet, this inspiration toward collaboration can take place even earlier—at the law school level.  As a student, I must approach the organizational structure on both a horizontal level with my peers and on a vertical level with professors and administrators, who take on roles similar to supervisors in a law firm setting.  But students working together, whether informally in study groups, or formally in class projects, school organizations, and clinical and pro-bono work, can intentionally adopt the teamwork model and foster the cooperative and collaborative skills needed before they must combat the traditional hierarchical structure.  If law students enter the workforce prepared to embrace the values of collaboration, communication, and cooperation, we can adapt and utilize the organizational structure of the profession to affect a more productive practice of law.