Bill, I'm the managing partner of a small business and intellectual property firm. We had a great run during the mid-’90s, but business has been down for the past two to three years. Several of our partners--including senior partners who brought in a lot of business during the boom years--have not been pulling their weight. How should we approach the problem?
When people in a law firm or a business have conflicts involving their expectations of each other, communications, status or money, they sometimes find it difficult to agree on what the problems are and on how to resolve them.
Part of my practice involves mediation, and I just spent a week in a training program at the San Diego Mediation Center. While I was at the program, I took the opportunity to ask the Mediation Center’s Director of Training, Barbara Filner, how she would handle this situation. Not surprisingly, Barbara recommends that you enlist the help of a trained mediator to facilitate a discussion among all the partners about everyone’s vision for the future of the firm. In that environment, she thinks that you will be able to tackle the difficult subjects of compensation, client development, partnership status and other potentially sensitive topics in a positive and constructive way. Barbara suggests that you talk candidly about how external factors have affected the firm’s ability to get and keep clients and how that has, in turn, affected the firm's finances.
She also suggests that you deal directly with the difficult issues and encourage the partners to talk about what they see as reasonable alternatives if you can’t successfully reach an agreement. It may be that your firm won’t survive as it is presently structured, and it is important to talk about how partners can support each other--as well as associates, contract attorneys and support staff--if major changes become necessary.
I would add that, even with the help of a skilled mediator, there is no guarantee that you and your partners will agree on what’s best for each of you individually and for the firm as a whole. But if you don’t find a way to sit down with each other and explore the tough issues facing your firm, your situation will probably get worse.
Finally, I am convinced that even if your firm decides to break up after the mediation, it will be a more amicable breakup if everyone feels as though they have had their say and have been listened to by their partners.
K. William Gibson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. A former Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, he is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice (ABA, 1997).
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