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Avoiding Disagreements Among Partners

Obviously, over time, partners in any business will disagree about nearly everything. However, when it comes to law partners, the intensity of the disagreements is magnified and taken out of proportion because of several reasons.

First, the essence of many areas of law is some form of conflict. Therefore, law partners have a primal instinct about prevailing, regardless of the size or importance of the issue at hand. This feeds into the second major issue, that of Ego.

The need to be right - above all other considerations - becomes far more important than focusing on the productive issues of synergy and collaboration, which would lead to significant benefits for all concerned. And the additional ego issue of I am the most important partner in the firm, and everyone should know it and treat me with the appropriate respect.

And if you like, let’s also add simple old-fashioned jealousy of the more successful partners. Schadenfreude (the pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune) motivates some partners to try and tear down the achievements of more successful partners in order to hide their own lack of accomplishments such a weak list of clients and relatively low billings.

Do you know another obscure English word, Schismogenesis? It has several meanings starting with “intentionally creating divisions.” One of its more unpleasant other meanings is “competitive destruction.” For example, the husband of an arguing couple might break the dishes that his wife’s parents gave them to spite his wife over some unrelated issue. In revenge, she might smash the 56” TV that his parents gave them.

Sound crazy? However, this could go on until the house is a total wreck while the real issues that began this competitive destruction have not even been dealt with.

Synergy is one + one = three. Like in the example of Schismogenesis above, feuding partners waste precious energy, time and resources, squandering chances for money-making synergistic opportunities, in dealing with totally unnecessary hard feelings. They end up with the opposite of synergy in which one + one = 1.5

You see, they would have even been better of just ignoring the situation because at least, one + one would equal two.

Each partner is convinced his/her share of client credits is worth more than what has been allocated to him/her. In an effort to be sure that he/she is getting his/her exact share of client credits, fights erupt, sometimes causing irreparable damage to the relationships among the partners.

There is also the righteous indignation a partner feels when he/she believes another partner has crossed the line of what has been acceptable firm behavior in terms of complying with standard policies or procedures; or perhaps an unforgivable power grab involving arranging political alliances among the other partners.

Have you never offended anyone? Have you never gone too far in the eyes of your partners (or in the eyes of your mate or friends) in pursuit of what you thought was right or in this case, what you think is best for the firm? You do not have to be a religious zealot to acknowledge the value of the centuries-old piece of philosophy: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!

Nonetheless, all too often, the aggreged partner(s) cannot take it any longer and they leave the firm thinking that running away from all these issues and this act will leave these problems in their rearview mirror, never to be seen again. However, there is no paradise on Earth and every law firm and every group of partners, is dealing with exactly the same issues.

Do you honestly think you are currently living in hell and by leaving this law firm you will find Heaven on Earth with some other group of partners? Please, let’s get serious. Even if the new law firm lures you away with fantastic promises, we can tell you with certainty, in the end, you will face the sme issues all over again.

Another important consideration is that building a recognized law firm brand in the market takes years. Therefore, before an individual partner or a group of partners leaves to set up their own shop, there is much more to be considered other than just running away from the inexcusable wrong that they feel was done to them. They will be destroying the old brand and they will face years of trying to be recognized as an important brand in the market with their new firm.

Do you know the quote of the 19th century writer, Charles Dudley Warner, usually incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, Everybody Talks About the Weather, But Nobody Does Anything About It? So far, we have not told you anything new. Now let’s discuss if there is a solution to the age-old problem of feuding law partners.

This article is not intended to be an English vocabular lesson, but there is another expression that is critical for us to resolving the issue of feuding partners. The phrase is a little antique and not in common use nowadays, but the concept is as fresh as ever: To cut someone some slack.

It means to give someone more latitude than usual; to be lenient with someone over comments or actions that are not life or death issues, especially if there are extenuating circumstances. A: "I can't believe she talked to me like that!" B: "You need to cut her some slack because she's grieving right now." It means you are less critical of someone’s behavior or performance than usual because you know they are in a difficult situation; such as when you are new at a job, colleagues and the boss will cut you some slack.

They forgive minor mistakes because you are new. Or, “She's still upset about her dad. Cut her a little slack.”

We are not Pollyanna’s in thinking we can all hold hands and sing “We shall Overcome” and all will be right with the world. But if we all take a deep breath and acknowledge to ourselves, that we will cut our partners some slack just as we hope they will cut us some slack, then we are off to a good start.

But you want us to be practical. OK. It is almost impossible to find any commercial contract today that does not include a compulsory arbitration clause in case of disputes. You would not allow your clients to enter into a contract without such a provision. But the by-laws of your law firm probably do not have such a provision.

Or, if there is such a provision, it is likely not considered as a viable method for solving disputes. Such a provision in a law firm’s by-laws is most often used when the firm has already split up and the squabbling former partners are fighting over the cash, assets and clients.

We offer you two approaches for holding your firm together and for resolving these conflicts.

1. We like to think outside the box and so we suggest that your firm should have a dispute resolution committee of three people from outside your law firm, people that all the partners respect and can agree on. They should be paid by the law firm for their service; they should meet once each month to “hold court” and to hear grievances; and serve for a period of two years.

All the partners have to agree that the decisions of this committee are binding. And the partners need to accept that some of these decisions will go against them. But it will be important for all partners to realize that these three rational arbitrators will see the logic and justice in each situation taking the hot-headed emotions out of the situation; that this committee will see what you as individual cannot see.

2. Next, we recommend that with the help of an outside consultant, once each year, perhaps in connection with your firm’s annual retreat, that you undertake the SWOT analysis. This is an exercise in which the Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Strengths of your law firm are examined in great detail. Without going into the mechanics of how the SWOT analysis works, it forces the partners to realize how great are the firm’s Strengths and

Opportunities and to look at the firm’s Weakness and Treats with an eye to improving them.

The SWOT helps put into proper perspective the problems the partners are complaining about as compared to the great assets they have in the firm. This exercise can quell the complaints; it can be the oil that is needed to pour onto the friction points to get the firm working smoothly again.

But even after all extraordinary measures have been taken to patch up disputes among partners, there can still be irreconcilable differences; and that is when it is time for a partner to leave. A married couple does not file for divorce unless a serious effort has been made to resolve their differences. You and your partners should do the same.

Do not let avoidable disagreements reach this point!

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