David Brooks published a thoughtful column in this morning's New York Times: "Baseball or Soccer?" This is an excellent question to ask your colleagues in your law firm. One of the main cultural reasons why many law firms fail to achieve the success that they crave, both collectively and individually, is that the partners metaphorically play baseball, when they really should learn to play soccer (what the rest of the civilized world correctly refers to as football).
As Critchley writes, "Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective." Brazil wasn't clobbered by Germany this week because the quality of the individual players was so much worse. They got slaughtered because they did a pathetic job of controlling space. A German player would touch the ball, even close to the Brazilian goal, and he had ample room to make the kill.
Is having a successful law firm a matter of "controlling space?" The successes and failures of law firms in the past ten years strongly persuade us that law firm partners succeed when they perform well-defined roles and understand what each partner -- both oneself and one's colleagues -- must do for the firm to succeed. It is one thing to talk about teamwork and collegiality. It is quite another thing to practice the intellectual discipline and emotional intelligence necessary to bring those values to life.
As lawyers, we have been trained to function in environments in which individual knowledge, skill, and professional responsibility are paramount. Law schools train us to be excellent solo practitioners, but largely ignore the real world of law firm practice. We might be great baseball players when we graduate from law school, but most of us don't know the first thing about playing the "beautiful game."