Teamwork may be the 21st Century’s technology, in that it promises greater productivity–but only when used well.  After seeing double digit increases in firms that have implemented team systems–management, marketing,  industry and client teams–an initial question many interested law firms have is how to go about achieving teamwork.  Luckily, research provides a clear "life cycle" of teams that can help firms successfully reach team goals.

The stages of teamwork, according to the established models, are 1) forming, 2) storming, 3) norming, and 4) performing.  The forming stage, even among lawyers, can be marked by tentative and polite accommodation.  Unsure of their roles and the leader’s competence, team participants need the leader to be clear, directive and highly structured during this first stage. This is not the time for a consensual  "Well, what do you think we should do?" approach.

During the second, storming stage, team members, particularly lawyers, will stake out their positions to test what their authority will be.  Conflict is often a result.  This is a positive development.  Handled well, the team will learn from experience that it is safe to engage in conflict, and that issues can be settled without lasting acrimony or division, even if it requires agreeing to disagree.  This is the basis on which trust and respect is established.  Leaders are often criticized during this stage, as much because of their role as because of their personal attributes or performance.  Leaders who can keep from reacting defensively will avoid exacerbating and prolonging this stage, which, being awkward and uncomfortable, helps propel the group to resolve their differences and move forward into the next stage.

During the third, norming stage, based on the higher level of trust achieved during the 2nd stage, the group’s goals are revised and a division of labor, with clear roles, is determined. 

The problem in law firms is that often lawyers don’t make it out of stage 2.  Tenacious about protecting their authority and unwilling to trust others to whom work must be delegated, these lawyers keep the team in unnecessary meetings and conflict.  Yet it is only in stage 3 that delegation becomes effective and the individuals are freed up to do their work.

Stage 4 is performing, which is the highly productive stage that teams are made for.  At this point, if members are added or removed, or the goals or delegation changed significantly, the team may regress back to an earlier stage and have to work their way up again.

Ideally, team members spend about 75% of the team time on accomplishing their tasks and 25% on participating in the team process, i.e. on maintaining group relations. Goals that are most amenable to team accomplishment are ones that require collective action, i.e. that no one person could accomplish on his/her own and that are meaningful, even inspiring.  The most effective teams have an emotional commitment to the goal, so framing goals as being in the individual team members’ interests is vital. 

Finally, team goals should be specific, measurable and attainable, with a real deadline that allows the team’s work to culminate in a completed project.  Ongoing goals make it difficult to maintain team motivation and momentum.