How To Restructure Your Office To Encourage Teamwork

French investigators recently found the remains of the Air France plane that crashed into the Atlantic en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro in June 2009. Both Air France and Airbus are facing charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the crash and the consequent death of 228 people.It’s not the first time an airliner has taken the heat for mass fatalities due to a plane crash. In December 1995, American Airlines flight 965 collided with a mountain just 38 miles from its final destination. Investigation attributed pilot and crew error to the crash, and American Airlines faced numerous lawsuits from family members of the 160 victims. At a critical point in the flight, the pilot and flight crew were discussing flight attendant duty schedules instead of discussing imminent arrival and descent procedures. The lack of situational awareness on the part of the flightcrew and their lack of knowledge of the location of critical radio aids were also key causes of the crash. Had the crew acted more decisively when the Ground Proximity Warning Alarm sounded, research shows the plane would have likely avoided the mountain.Lessons in teamwork make for a life or death situation in air flight. At law firms, lessons in teamwork can lead to the life or death of your case. As in air travel, technology has led to more autonomy on the part of professionals at the detriment of interpersonal dialogue. Email, computer database systems, and case management software, to name a few, have in some ways eliminated the need for personal contact, conversation, or day-to-day coordination among legal professionals. However, traditional values on team performance and leadership are still essential to a successful law practice and should be honed as often as other, more modern competencies, like understanding legal technology.            Work among teams is crucial, since teams are organic, dynamic, and flexible. Teams can be organized horizontally, or exist within a hierarchy—under an elected leader. The brainstorming process is key, and whether or not you realize it, often dependent on proximity. In an office environment, associates tend to seek the advice of the person closest to them. In many law firms, associates on the same hallway or certain floor bond together naturally and form ad hoc teams. It’s easy to seek the advice of a neighboring associate or suitemate by simply walking next door.Therefore, when designing the office, ensure the floor plan reflects a diversity of expertise and gender. Disburse the first-year associates around the office, as opposed to sitting them on the same floor. This will allow them to seek mentorship with older, more experienced attorneys. Make a concerted effort to equally distribute law firm managers, litigation consultants, of counsel, younger associates, and paralegals, rather than dedicating entire sections of the office to one department (or one age group). When it comes to conference rooms, try oval or circular tables so that there is no command seat. Associates will feel more apt to contribute if they’re made to believe their opinions are equal. Also, set seating placement during meetings often promotes power plays, rather than peer brainstorming.             Finally, teamwork can also be encouraged via training seminars and mandatory professional development time. The ability to work cohesively as a group will make all the difference at trial, when attention to detail and clear communication among the members of the legal team means more technical errors are caught in time—and quick decisions made unfalteringly—to save a crashing case.

-WB

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