When we talk about complex litigation, we usually refer to the legal issues involved in joining a large number of varied claims. But the legal debates are not the only issue that makes complex litigation so complicated; sometimes it’s just the lawyers. Because class actions involve such high stakes, they often require more than just one attorney or one law firm. On the defense side, lawyers may find themselves dealing with discovery counsel, with co-counsel, or with large client teams. And, because of differing roles, differing client agendas, or just plain old competition, those lawyers may not always work together smoothly

So, how can lawyers on each side best work with their co-counsel? We can glean some insight from a working paper from business professors Kristin Behfar, Ray Friedman, and Jeanne Brett.  “The Team Negotiation Challenge: Defining and Managing the Internal Challenges of Negotiating Teams” draws on open-ended interviews with a number of business executives to identify the issues that arise within teams. While the paper focuses specifically on negotiation within teams engaged in putting together a business deal, the dynamics will ring familiar to any lawyer who has ever had to coordinate a joint scheduling order, negotiate a common settlement, or file a joint brief.

Among the professors’ findings:

  • Some of the largest challenges are posed by scheduling. In any large organization, simply coming up with the time to discuss issues can itself require a separate round of negotiations. (See also most lawyers’ Outlook inboxes.)
  • Confusion over roles may create conflict. Not a surprising result, but still worth some attention. Among the issues the authors identify were negotiation among team members that must be ratified by separate department heads (read “each law firms’ partners).
  • Personality conflicts are the greatest danger to negotiation. The authors found that teams that suffered relationship conflicts were less likely to be prepared for negotiations (since they were spending their time on the conflict instead of the substantive issues), suffered more stress and anxiety, and were more likely to escalate conflicts with the other side.
  • Substantive differences make negotiation easier. One might not expect this to be the case, but it actually makes logical sense. If a team must negotiate substantive differences before presenting its public stance, it must – at least temporarily – resolve any toxic personality conflicts. (This jibes with the old saw that “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”)

There are any number of takeaways from the article (its advice to develop nonverbal signals for “public” negotiations is particularly interesting), but the most important conclusion is one that I recognize from some of the mentors I’ve been blessed with over the years: reducing internal drama makes a litigation team more effective.