Adam Grant is back with Season 2 of his podcast Work Life with Adam Grant, where he studies “how to make work not suck.” In one of the most recent episodes, he talks about how rivalries, done right, can actually create success for all parties involved. In this article, lets explore how legal professionals can collaborate as rivals.

Gavin Kilduff is an associate professor at NYU who has carried out extensive research on rivalries, competition and their effect on motivation and performance. As part of their research, Kilduff found that your rivals performance will influence your own performance. We can see this within sports teams where you will find rivalries of iconic duos, like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, who were teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers statistically played better when they were on the court together.

Kilduff states that rivalry has a physiological effect our bodies, with an increased heart rate and alertness, which can encourage creativity and risk taking. However there is also a downside,  because when the stakes of the competition are really high, it leads to a “whatever it takes to win” mentality that can get destructive. Sir Richard Branson has first hand experience with this when British Airways (“BA”) tried to muscle Virgin Atlantic out of the airline industry with illicit actions such as contacting Virgin  customers to cancel flights and rebook them on BA. In the end BA settled with Virgin for $945 000, which Branson paid to employees as a Christmas bonus!

When we look at the legal industry, our rivals range from colleagues within our workplaces to external competing organisations. The legal industry is quite individualistic in that each practitioner is charged with making a name for themselves, by billing their own fees and arguing their own matters. Therefore collaboration isn’t something we are good at, even within teams, there are instances where senior attorneys would refuse to train junior attorneys because they look at them as a rival. In the end what results is “cut-throat cooperation”, where people pretend to work together, yet hide key information on matters and clients for themselves.

Initiatives by State Owned Companies, like Eskom, IDC, Transnet, etc to pair small black law firms with big law firms on highly specialised matters, in order to promote skills transfer are a prime example of cut throat cooperation. What happens is that the black law firms attend meetings at the client and are copied emails, occasionally review drafts-  but are not  intimately part of the process of actually preparing the work. As a black junior associate in a mostly white team, it wasn’t uncommon to be taken along for meetings to and when you return to the office, you never hear about that matter again. The large law firms see the smaller black firms as potential adversaries and therefore find it difficult to help them to succeed. The white law firm partners see the black associates as future rivals and hence aren’t keen to train or expose them to work.

As lawyers collaboration is not our natural inclination, we are not taught about it in university or during articles. However we have to learn to do so because it will improve the quality of work, and increase billable hours. It is about winning but without becoming a ruthless saboteur. So how do you collaborate cooperatively, when the stakes are high?


1. Have A Reason To Collaborate

From 2014 to 2016, my friends (who are also lawyers) and I ran a food business called Mutton Glutton, selling mutton burgers and sausage rolls at various pop up events between Johannesburg and Pretoria. When we got there we were overwhelmed by the helpfulness of the other vendors, who would give us hotdog or hamburger rolls when we ran out, or let us use their adapters to connect our equipment to the electricity points and even invite us to other gigs where they would be selling. It was the complete opposite of what we were used to in the legal industry. The reason for this was to create more variety for customers, where having options creates more interest in all the stalls because customers want to try a little bit of everything. It was therefore beneficial for us to all cooperate and work as allies working together to reach a wider goal, of keeping customers interested in our stalls than heading to the food court at the mall.

In the legal industry it would be advisable for legal professionals to collaborate with rivals in order to elevate the quality of legal services offered to clients and to also increase the pool of referrals you can make as well as receive. As The Legal Werk we are working on My Learned Colleague as a platform to encourage collaboration of legal professionals, sign up and find out more about to work other lawyers in a ways thats beneficial to all. The official start date will be announced soon, so make sure you are signed and don’t miss out.

2. Have Respect For Each Other

According to Grant, there are 2 types of respect- “the respect you earn and the respect you are owed.” Owed respect is egalitarian and is due to you as a human being, whereas earned respect is meritocratic and is bestowed on you for your performance or your contribution to your company or industry.

In the legal profession, we tend to place earned respect above owed respect- if a person works in a bigger firm, specialises in a very niche legal area or argued matters in higher courts, we give them respect on that basis other than simply that they are a qualified legal professional.

Often times the practice of law can be seen as a zero sum game, wherein its each lawyer for him/herself- legacies and livelihoods are in  the balance of billable hours. However as legal professionals we have all been subjected to bad lawyer jokes or just heard some terrible interpretation of law by non- lawyers.

Therefore in order to elevate respect for our profession, we need to have respect for one another.

3. Agree On Status


Once you establish mutual owed respect, then you have to agree on status and seniority of the players in the relationship. The junior legal advisor must defer to the head of legal as his/ her senior in matters, rather than thinking they are on the same level. Too much similarity causes tensions between the rivals and leads to cut throat actions if the parties can not agree on who is more senior. You want the more senior professional to feel they are handing the torch to the next generation of legal professionals and not like they are putting a nail in their own career’s coffin.

4. Check Your Emotions

When your rivals loses or is facing a challenge, you may feel a shot of happiness caused by their misfortune, but, when they win you may feel green with envy. However in a friendly rivalry the emotions are a little more complex because as much as you want to do well, you also want the other person to succeed. According to Grant, “its ok to envy your rivals success, as long as you also celebrate it.”

Working with a rival can be hard, but it pushes you to do your best and overall elevates the quality of competitiveness in your field. Lets be open minded in approaching this exercise whether its within our immediate teams or with other colleagues in the legal industry.  Although this the opposite of A Hunger Games mentality, I think the phrase “May the odds ever be in your favour” still applies.

Share your thoughts on this post below.

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