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Why small talk and big ideas need to come together

by Helen Hamilton-Shaw | September 22, 2021
by Helen Hamilton Shaw, Member Engagement and Strategy Director with LawNet

Originally published in Solicitors Journal, August 2020

Faced by fallout from the Covid pandemic, it may seem counter-intuitive to cosy up to the competition.  And when dealing with the biggest business challenge most of us have ever faced, it might not seem the time to seek out new ideas.    

But being collaborative and learning from others is likely to bring exponential rewards.  

The value of a positive knowledge-sharing culture is not new1.  Studies investigating the relationship between knowledge sharing and performance have demonstrated how donating or receiving knowledge can have a positive influence on innovation.  Certainly, it is borne out by our latest research with the SME law firms that comprise the membership of our non-profit network.

Participants said they were focused on the big issues in their businesses and ranked opportunities to learn the latest leadership thinking from outside the legal sector as most important to achieving that.  

Other top-five priorities included learning about leading-edge approaches to financial management, quality processes and risk management culture.  The findings also revealed that being open to collaboration can generate big gains. 

It is easy to understand why law firm leaders may be cautious about sharing their ideas and concerns with peers in other firms but being open-minded about the opportunities offered by collaboration can make a meaningful difference in thinking and attitudes. 

We see some exciting examples across our network, with firms working together in areas from robotics through to HR, and collaboration has become even more of a priority during the pandemic – nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.  We set up weekly discussion sessions for different groups within our member firms, including managing partners, business development professionals and the risk management community.  These sessions provide a fantastic demonstration of the value of sharing a burden, with participants talking about their challenges, experiences, and ideas, as well as their wider strategic thinking, which brings a future focus to the discussions.  Participants might pick up a real pearl of wisdom from time to time, but also – and this can be so valuable in a lonely leadership role – they often validate their own decisions by listening to how others are approaching shared challenges and opportunities.

This sort of candour and openness naturally encourages reciprocity. One firm in our network shared their experience in developing career pathways backed up by a competency framework, and the receiving firm responded by sharing their ideas and experiences of outsourcing. 

I appreciate that members of a network such as ours, with so many shared values, are more likely to speak openly with each other, but there is a real opportunity for greater co-operation in the sector generally.  

When in fire-fighting mode, dealing with today’s pandemic, firms are likely to focus on the immediate problem, rather than on the new ideas and processes which will differentiate them in future.  It goes without saying that the last few months have been exhausting and stressful for anyone in a leadership position, but our members have proved that taking a strategic viewpoint is not the sole preserve of bigger business. 

LawNet members tend to be in the £2m to £25m turnover range, which provides a cohesive group for research purposes in a hugely fragmented sector ranging from sole practitioner to Magic Circle, but we wanted to  understand variations across our membership so that we could tailor our support.   

Drilling down, we analysed our findings by firm size and this showed that despite narrow variations in the ranking at different turnover levels, the top five factors remained constant across all the firms surveyed, with every size of firm saying that embracing big ideas was vital. 

Opportunity and exposure may play a part in that, as activities like our annual conference bring in international-class speakers from across the corporate world, beyond anything most firms could access otherwise.   This often takes participants out of their comfort zone, introducing them to ideas from different sectors, and those not yet mainstream, but we find everyone welcomes the learning, even if only to understand what is coming. 

It is important, especially in today’s climate, for firms to seek out ways to access novel ideas and big thinking, and to create channels for small talk with their peers. We need to listen to more than our own buzzing - after all, the hive knows more than even the cleverest bee.  


The findings were drawn from a research project undertaken with LawNet’s 70-strong membership earlier this year, as part of the network’s audit process.  

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