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Preventing Partnership Implosions Before It’s Too Late

To outsiders, law firm partnerships may appear successful and well-run by a united leadership team.  Inside, however, the true story could be worlds apart from perceptions. 

All too often, we hear about law firms in the midst of highly emotional, extremely costly disputes or dissolutions.  Many implode despite the partners’ prior individual and joint successes, their shared professional bonds or many years of working together. These conflicts can be over many little things that have built up over time or abrupt implosions due to newly discovered deceits and other harmful behaviors. Firm leaders are often unsure as to how to deal with the crisis and until they determine the best course of action, valuable time is lost and damages continue accruing.

We must never underestimate the extensive harm done by substance addiction, greed, desperation and deceit.  Nor should we discount the damaging fallout (to all employees) within a law office due to longstanding, unresolved disputes between partners. Challenging economic times can make these destructive scenarios more likely and more costly.

Below are a few “starter” tips (far from all-inclusive) to consider when partner disputes arise.  They may not always help prevent the ultimate dissolution of a firm. They have proven, however, to help sparring parties avoid destructive fallout and to move more quickly and productively toward resolution.

If you have an “issue” or disagreement with a partner, don’t bury your head in the sand or otherwise procrastinate. Talk things over sooner rather than later.  Squarely face the conflict and real issues at hand. Keep civil, respectful discussions moving forward for as long as it takes to find a fair resolution, to find better and productive ways to communicate and to salvage relationships worth holding on to.

Search for and find the real facts. Not doing so means you may be unknowingly (or in some cases very knowingly!) relying upon malicious gossip, incorrect and/or possibly intentionally false information.

When discussing the disputed issues, ensure your imaginary “thick skin” is on at all times so as to maximize continuing progress towards resolution and to minimize any emotional meltdowns (including the spewing of words you may later regret and can never retrieve once they have parted from your mouth).

Give any and all discussions your undivided attention: no multitasking, displays of impatience (including negative body language!) or any other actions that indicate you have more important priorities than the discussions at hand. Be a consistently active listener. Be willing and open to hear and try to understand the other side’s perspective. Commit to keeping an open mind and acting with class and respectfulness toward all. This commitment must be ongoing and steadfast as everyone works his/her way through the painful, unpleasant and sensitive issues that need to be addressed and resolved.

If you feel you lack the emotional stability and/or necessary communication skills to work patiently and steadfastly toward resolution, hire a third party neutral such as a mediator. A retired judge may also be willing to help guide leadership through the labyrinth of emotions and decision-making via an ombudsman-type role. The bottom line is that the right facilitator can help you navigate the waters of awkwardness, miscommunications, false impressions, the pain of conflict and/or the points of strong disagreement.

Bring in other facilitators or experts to assist with the process when their expertise would be helpful to the process (e.g., accountants, human resource managers, communication coaches).

Understand that if you do choose to handle conflicts disrespectfully, hastily or harshly there will no doubt be more harm done along with long-term negative consequences – many of which you may never have anticipated and will live to regret.

Through my years as an attorney, mediator and law office management consultant, I have seen firsthand what runaway greed, deceit and unresolved conflicts can do to a law firm.  It’s never pretty, always costly and there are truly no winners. We can, however, minimize the risks of costly litigation and the tragic repercussions of destroyed partnerships, friendships and long-term professional relationships. We can do so by addressing our conflicts – whether big or small – wisely, timely, resourcefully, honestly, calmly and respectfully. This is easier said than done, but so worth our time and efforts for all concerned -- not to mention the clients we serve.

Nancy Byerly Jones

Nancy Byerly Jones is enthusiastically and tirelessly dedicated to helping her clients build business success stories that last...and as a family law and workplace mediator, she is a passionate advocate for helping keep folks out of the courtroom and moving positively forward with their lives. Please visit her website (http://LawBusinessTips.com), on Twitter (http://Twitter.com/lawbusinesstips) or on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/nbjones). If you have any questions for Nancy, she’d enjoy hearing from you by email too: nbj@nbjconsulting.com

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About the Author: Nancy Byerly Jones is enthusiastically and tirelessly dedicated to helping her clients build business success stories that last...and as a family law and workplace mediator, she is a passionate advocate for helping keep folks out of the courtroom and moving positively forward with their lives. Please visit her website (http://LawBusinessTips.com), on Twitter (http://Twitter.com/lawbusinesstips) or on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/nbjones). If you have any questions for Nancy, she’d enjoy hearing from you by email too: nbj@nbjconsulting.com

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