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Unpacking interdisciplinary legal practices

There is an inevitability about interdisciplinary practice, including the way it will play out in redefining ‘law’ and ‘legal services', writes Marguerite Picard.

user iconMarguerite Picard 03 September 2021 SME Law
Unpacking interdisciplinary legal practices
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Law as we know it, is practised by professionals who have deep but, overall, narrow skills. I would argue that the range of skills legal service providers offer should be both broad and deep, given the reach of law into people’s lives, and the increasing complexity of advice. Once, lawyers held the key to knowledge but Google has now taken care of that in many people’s minds. Our role and the definition of advice must now encompass facilitation of information and advice, and effectively, project management with our clients.  

I argue for the inclusion of broader skills into the arbitration and resolution of rights and disputes, in ways that involve other professions on an equal footing with the lawyers. A distinction is made between inviting other professions into legal processes that are designed and managed by lawyers, (expert witnesses for example) and collaborative processes that proactively involve all the included professions in process design and the analysis and resolution of rights and disputes.

There is an inevitability about interdisciplinary practice, including the way it will play out in redefining ‘law’ and ‘legal services'. This is partly a product of the drive to democratise power and institutions which has been made inevitable by the democratisation of information.


How is Interdisciplinary Practice defined? How is it different from traditional co-operation and co-working between lawyers and other professionals?

Lawyers are well versed in the practice of engaging experts in a referral-out model for advice and client support. We engage other experts as witnesses to argue and offer opinions, not typically to engage in strategy or to add to process design.

The role of an expert or expert witness, who is external to processes that are ‘owned’ by lawyers, is necessarily limited by the need to stay within the parameters of their brief. That brief is determined by the lawyers’ traditions as well as by legislation and rules. The terms of engagement are the limitation on true integration of multiple disciplines in legal processes. The challenge for lawyers is to engage wholly with other professionals whilst remaining compliant with regulation.

Traditional engagement with other subject matter experts, working in parallel, looks from afar like interdisciplinary practice. It is not because it revolves around processes designed by lawyers and around compliance with legislation and the rules of evidence. It places lawyers and law at the zenith and manipulates information in ways that are designed to fit within a narrow and often adversarial understanding of the issues at hand.

Real interdisciplinary practice involves the integration of the skills of each practitioner, who are equally respected and understood. Integration is not merely about different professions swimming in the same ocean, but doing so in formation. These formations or teams, allow for new ideas and approaches to problem-solving, as well as for the emergence of ideas that didn’t exist prior to the formation of the team.

An integrated team needs to be working towards the same goal, and each player needs to believe that they are able to make their best contribution. In the ways lawyers usually engage with other professionals to deliver legal advice, or legal outcomes, it is the lawyers who understand and manage the process into which other opinions or players are invited. Lawyers constrain the role of other voices, usually in order to ensure compliance with rules, strategy, and evidence.

In disputes, offences against the person, enforcement of claims and rights, for example, there are long-standing requirements for the ways lawyers conduct matters. There are, though, other ways that these matters could be resolved that are not repugnant to the law, rather simply non-traditional. Think of hot tubbing of experts in building arbitration as an example of altered process design.

Lawyers’ Wellbeing

The responsibility for ‘getting it right’, (especially in hindsight) is a burden that lawyers live with. The consequences of not getting it right can be devastating for clients, professional reputations, and insurance claims. Carrying this burden is corrosive to emotional health, and it is system change rather than the personal responsibility of the lawyers, which has, and should, accept the role of reducing the burden. Education and adaptations in the system to expand the place of a range of professionals in work that has traditionally been the sole preserve of lawyers is a wellbeing change that needs discussion.

Interdisciplinary practice allows for sharing the creativity, the knowledge, the relationships with clients, and the process design or ‘how to’, for managing enforcement of rights and resolution of conflict within or within sight of the legal system.

The conclusion of this piece is that integrative or interdisciplinary practice has the power to respond to complexity, and to contribute to the reshaping of legal services, benefiting consumers, and supporting lawyers’ wellbeing.

Case Experiences

As a collaborative professional at MELCA, I work as a member of interdisciplinary teams. I work in a range of interpersonal disputes. My observation is that more often than not, cases have turned around as a result of the input of one of the non-lawyers, rather than as a result of legal advice. For example, when a neutral financial planner demonstrates that clients’ assumptions can’t be supported by the data, such as beliefs about the disposal/hiding of assets. I also reflect on the role of financial planners as myth-busters, educating clients about common misinformation such as, ‘there is a trust, so they must be wealthy or hiding money’, or ‘he/she is a spender or a spendthrift’.

Frequently also, the role of a social scientist turns cases around by working on improving communication between clients and conflict coaching. Interestingly, I see the social scientists re-interpreting client behaviour for the benefit of the lawyers, and therefore the case. Lawyers, myself included, can be quick to judge behaviour as representing the personality of the other client. Having a psychological perspective on the drivers and triggers of our own and of clients’ behaviour is a powerful means of moving focus from the what to the why; it is the why that resolves disputes, not the what.

My daily working life in interdisciplinary collaboration is one in which most situations are resolved, rarely by a lawyer alone, and not typically by the application of ‘law’.  Legal advice provides a baseline, but it infrequently provides real resolution; it tends to weaponise one person's position over that of the other. Maybe that’s what practising law used to look like. For me, that is no longer the case, as I enter my twelfth year working as an interdisciplinary practitioner.

Marguerite Picard is a lawyer and accredited specialist, author, co-founder of MELCA, founder of Changemakers in the Legal System, president of the Victorian Association of Collaborative Professionals.