Lawyers, roles and identity

While I was tweeting from Reinvent Law London last Friday, Chris Atherton laid down a challenge:

This is an attempt to rise to the challenge.

Most of last week was spent on a Cognitive Edge course on Cynefin and sense-making. Despite having done a similar accreditation course in 2010, there was a lot to process. I am still doing so, and a few blog posts may emerge as a result. However, a couple of concepts are relevant here.

My memories of The West Wing are sketchy, but one aspect of it does stick in my mind. Apart from the necessary confusions that drive the plot forward, each character has a clearly defined role within the White House. Most importantly, although he is by some measures the most important person, President Bartlett doesn’t get to decide everything. In particular, crisis situations see him take leadership from one or other of his staff members (depending on their particular expertise).

This model fits the notion of a crew (as distinct from a team) [update: this quote is taken from a glossary entry that seems to have vanished from the Cognitive Edge website]:

One of the radical alternatives I and others are working on here is the concept of crews as a way of ritualizing, and formalizing cross silo activity.

A crew works because its members take up roles for which they are trained, and where their expectations of the other roles in the crew is also trained and to a large extent ritualised. This means that people can assemble into a crew without the common forming, norming, storming & performing cycle.

A crew has cognitive capacity beyond the sum of its members, members occupy their roles for limited time periods, with people swapping between roles to allow for continuity. In addition crews can delegate power in context outside of the normal hierarchies.

Crews are commonly seen in crisis situations, but confusion can arise when there is inadequate preparation for the arrangement. Another TV drama provides an example here. In the most recent series of Wallander, the eponymous police inspector accidentally leaves his gun in a bar. On his return from suspension for this breach, his team is told that he will remain in charge of investigations but his colleague Martinsson will be responsible for team admin and HR issues. Inevitably this produces some tensions as the two work their way around these directives (apparently without discussing them openly).

An effective crew often demands that people take orders from people who are notionally below them in the hierarchy. This is helped when we look to identities rather than individuals. Identities can be seen as context-sensitive parts one plays as an individual. As Dave Snowden puts it:

Within a family I may have many roles such as father, cook, picker up of cat sick, humane disposer of spiders, fault bearer (just keep adding them) which I or others perform at different times. The family has a coherence that is more that the aggregate of its parts or its roles. An identity does not have rigid boundaries, nor is it susceptible of precise definition. When does one’s daughter’s boy friend become a part of the family? A cousin twice removed may be an intimate of one family and an unknown relative in another.

A crew, then, depends on people recognising that their identity (the part they are playing now) is more important than their role in the organisation. That is what allows a nurse in an operating theatre to require a surgeon to count all the swabs that have been used, to make sure there are none left in the patient.

So where is the law firm link?

One angle is that for too long, the traditional law firm partner role has encompassed too many identities at the expense of using non-legal expertise effectively. Bruce MacEwen wrote a couple of compelling articles which make the case much better than I could.

Another angle is provided by a conversation I had with Jeremy Hopkins of Riverview Law last Friday. It was fascinating to learn about what Riverview do, and the part that Jeremy (not a lawyer, as if it matters) plays in their work for clients. Whilst law firms have conditioned themselves to think that the lawyer has to be at the heart of the client relationship, Jeremy described work that he has managed for clients where few, if any, Riverview lawyers were involved. The point is that clients get exactly what they need, provided by people who came together as a crew to do just what they are best at, efficiently and without having to worry about soothing the ego of an overstretched law firm partner. I am sure this model will work well for Riverview and its clients.

So, law firms, what’s next?

4 thoughts on “Lawyers, roles and identity”

  1. Similar theme to that studied in standard management, and why the evolution points of military management are valuable case studies in business. Most notably, Colonel Stirling (and those that subsequently came after him to head up what was known originally as “L Detachment”) perfected this in UK military terms – forming small groups of individuals (four man “crews” of sorts within a larger troop). The innovation was that not only were the groups smaller than ever seen before, but each man had a unique skill set – unique across his peers. It was coupled by also introducing a radical change to military decision making in the field – whereby it could now involve the opinions of all in the sub-group, irrespective of rank, as it recognised that with specialist skills comes authority in a different form – subject matter authority.

    1. Interesting. I am a bit of a duffer when it comes to military stuff, but now that Wikipedia has told me what became of L Detachment, I can see that the concept probably applies very well to the Regiment. Thanks!

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