The Wall Street Journal article Bringing Surgeons Down to Earth (11/16/05, $) reports on making surgeons pay more attention to non-doctors in the operating room, which turns out to save lives. Lawyers are at the top of their own caste system – can they learn from doctors? 

“There is mounting evidence that poor communication between hospital support staff and surgeons is the leading cause of avoidable surgical errors… a big part of the problem is the intense atmosphere of the OR, where surgeons are the captains of the ship, treated with deference because of their unique skills”

Sound familiar? When big cases get intense, the senior lawyer may ignore team members, especially non-lawyers. The stakes are not life and death, but more communication might improve results.

The WSJ article reports that hospitals are following in the footsteps of the aviation industry, which spent 20 years on cockpit management and creating an environment in which the flight crew can talk to pilots, especially in emergencies. Hospitals are adopting the equivalent of pre-flight checklists and team-building strategies that encourage open communication in the OR.

But “nurses and staff can still find it difficult to speak up… OR staff will feel comfortable challenging authority in the long run only if hospital executives and administrators champion change.” Lawyers who do not see a communication problem in law firms should note that one “survey found that surgeons often don’t perceive a problem with communication, while nurses do.”

Law firms are not nearly as hierarchical as corporations; the most junior staff has access to managing partners. But the law firm caste system is rigid – you’re either a lawyer or not, a partner or not. Just as in the OR, breaking down the caste system for better team communication will likely yield better results.

What’s that got to do with technology? Just ask an experienced legal assistant or litigation support manager about watching cases crash and burn because the lawyer ignored advice about how and when to manage discovery documents. Or ask a lawyer who’s been embarrassed by sending a document from which the meta-data was not removed.

Complex legal matters require a wide range of expertise. Like pilots and surgeons, lawyers should listen to their teams.