The Five Dysfunctions of a Law Firm?

I just finished reading the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, which is written as a “leadership fable” – a story of a struggling technology start up company.

The central premise of the book is that creating a strong team is one of the few remaining competitive advantages available to organizations. Functional teams make better decisions and accomplish more in less time. Talented people are less likely to leave organizations where they are part of a cohesive team.

Politics is defined as when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think. Politics and other dysfunctions get in the way of the effective teamwork which is critical to a firm’s success. The book states that if you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.

So how to you make a strong team? To reduce politics and confusion in an organization, you need to address the five common dysfunctions:

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust
This occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible.

Strategy for Overcoming:
– Identify and discuss individual strengths and weaknesses
– Spend considerable time in face-to-face meetings and working sessions

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict
Teams that are lacking on trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues, causing situations where team conflict can easily turn into veiled discussions and back channel comments. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result.

Strategy for Overcoming:
– Acknowledge that conflict is required for productive meetings
– Establish common ground rules for engaging in conflict
– Understand individual team member’s natural conflict styles

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment
Without conflict, it is difficult for team members to commit to decisions, creating an environment where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment can make employees disgruntled.

Strategy for Overcoming:
– Review commitments at the end of each meeting to ensure all team members are aligned
– Adopt a “disagree and commit” mentality—make sure all team members are committed regardless of initial disagreements

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability
When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team.

Strategy for Overcoming:
– Explicitly communicate goals and standards of behavior
– Regularly discuss performance versus goals and standards

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results
Team members naturally tend to put their own needs (ego, career development, recognition, etc.) ahead of the collective goals of the team when individuals aren’t held accountable. If a team has lost sight of the need for achievement, the business ultimately suffers.

Strategy for Overcoming:
– Keep the team focused on tangible group goals
– Reward individuals based on team goals and collective success

Application to Law Firms

Partners in law firms essentially own their own individual businesses under the firm banner. Compensation mechanisms are often a source of firm politics. Law firms can be heirarichal and more junior lawyers may not be comfortable being totally transparent with more senior colleagues. Also, lawyers as a group are not representative of the greater population, most notably that they are often highly autonomous individuals. The saying that managing lawyers is like herding cats reflects that law firms and lawyers individually present unique challenges to team building.

According the Lencioni, teamwork ultimately comes down to practicing a small set of principles over a long period of time. Members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and a focus on results so elusive.

Possibly, even lawyers.


  1. Nice article. I read this book while working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and our “team” took into account some of the advice, with limited results. Our results were limited mostly because I was the only one who actually read the book and took it to heart. It’s in this book, if I remember correctly, that I came across the notion of the four-stages of team-building: forming, storming, norming and performing. I’m going to retweet this. Thanks.

  2. Great post! Can be applied to any ‘consultant’ business or ‘firm’ business.
    In my experience, where this approach fails is when the leaders do not do everything as well. They expect the team to do it, but somehow they feel that it ‘doesn’t apply’ to them. This is a mistake in my opinion. If you want this to be successful, everyone has to do it … everyone.