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The Importance of Collaborative Community

Shortly before writing this, I was out for a ride on my mountain bike. I do a lot of thinking on my bike. On this particular ride, I got to thinking about how, in my local community, mountain bikers formed a group that became largely responsible for the trails I have available to me to ride on.

The mountain biking trails didn’t make themselves. Mountain bikers don’t sit around on their couches being all “where are the trails?”, “why aren’t there any trails?” ,“I want more trails nearby!”. No, they take action, they come together and, as a community, they make S*!% happen!

What has this got to do with collaborative practice?

Just like mountain biking, your work as a lawyer can appear to be an individual sport. Even within a firm, most lawyers speak of “my clients” and “my files” and many firms I have been into have felt like a collection of individuals brought together through their shared love of the water cooler.  Many lawyers are introverts and probably prefer this individual nature of practice. But, in reality, neither mountain biking nor legal practice are individual pursuits.

To truly thrive and get the most out of their chosen sport, mountain bikers need each other. They build community. Within those communities, they have developed etiquettes, norms and a strong culture. They have a language understood by them all. They learn from each other. They help each other out when things get hairy. Those trails they want made, they get them done - together.

For collaborative lawyers too, I maintain one of the four pillars of having a successful individual practice is your professional community.

Building a strong community of collaborative professionals can give you, the individual professional…

  • Credibility – coming together to create professional guidelines and norms gives credibility to the group and to you, as a member of that community.

  • Confidence – as a community, you can achieve greater access to resources, training and learning from one another. You can create cost effective, informal get-togethers to practice your skills and to support one another.

  • Cases – we likely already have collaborative cases (yes, even when you think you don't) but as part of a community of collaborative professionals, local awareness about Collaborative Practice can be raised far more efficiently. This awareness raising may target your non-trained colleagues as well as your local community and “market”. You can “share the load” and any costs of building awareness, getting greater reach and avoiding doubling up of tasks associated with this.

  • Craft beers and Chardonnay Collegiality – you can have a great social time with your community members! Getting to relax and socialise together helps form bonds, gives you opportunities to reframe any misconceptions your colleagues may have of you as a litigious lawyer and keeps you top of mind when they are referring collaborative cases. For sole practitioners, it allows you to feel part of something 'bigger' and mitigates against professional isolation. It’s actually just plain good for the soul.

Even if you don’t have other collaborative professionals local to you, the use of audio-visual conferencing and online groups means community is more accessible than ever.

What makes for successful communities of collaborative professionals? As someone who struggles daily with the challenge of engaging and building community, my observations so far are that the following factors are important:

  • Champions – there usually are one or two members who drive and champion the formation of a local practice group or hub and motivate, inspire, cajole, bribe …whatever it takes …their colleagues to get the community’s activities happening.

  • Rituals – a lot of successful groups speak of creating a regular ritual or routine of coming together at a set time each month and not missing this. Many create routines within this. For example, they may alternate the meetings between social – educative – debriefing as a group.

  • Responsiveness – of members to the efforts of each other and their champions! You don’t want your community champions to burn out or lose the faith so being positive and responsive to the efforts of them and others in the group is one small way you can help build your community. If they put the call out for help, respond. If they don't, ask how you may help.

  • Individual stands against busy-ness and apathy – at the end of the day our communities are built up of us all as individuals and it is all of us taking small, individual actions to move our community’s goals forward that creates collective success. We are all busy. We all are juggling multiple commitments. We all run the risk of apathy taking over, particularly if we feel we’re not getting traction in building our collaborative case load (see the chicken-and-egg thing going on there?). Note, though, I suggested us all each taking SMALL, individual actions. We don’t need to be committing hours each week to our communities. If everyone contributed 10 minutes a day, imagine what your community could achieve. That’s less time than you probably spent queuing for coffee this morning.

Mountain bikers would rather be riding but they know they need to get off their bikes occasionally to help their communities.

What are you waiting for? Get off your bike and get active within your collaborative community!

What has worked for your community? What is your community struggling with? I’d love to hear!

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