October 2003  Volume 29, Issue 7
October 2003 Issue
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Six Principles for Building Strong Partnerships
by Stephen Weinstein
Having a solid partnership that lasts the tests of time takes a huge effort. The critical first step is putting the fundamentals in place.

PARTNERSHIPS ARE FRAGILE ENTITIES. They depend on the participants' goodwill and their common desire to work together and to stay together through good times and bad. What makes partnerships strong? Why do some seem to thrive while others seem to be in constant disarray?

There are many factors involved, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to formulate an exhaustive list. There are, however, six principles that are fundamental to building and maintaining a strong partnership. Here they are.

1. Don't Intertwine Your Personal and Your Professional Lives
Most practicing lawyers probably spend more time with their colleagues than with their families. The law, after all, is not a 9-to-5 business--lawyers spend unusually long hours, including some evenings and weekends, toiling away together. It's only natural, then, that during our careers we develop bonds with our partners, a closeness that can only come from sharing the work experience. Quite often, this closeness develops into personal friendships. The problem is, a close friendship between partners inevitably leads to a situation where the friendship interferes with the partnership. Decisions that affect the individual partners, or the entire partnership, become clouded with sentiment.

When one of the partners holds an authoritative role in the firm, the friendship becomes even more problematic. Other members of the firm are led to question whether the decision maker is protecting his or her friend, or treating the person more (or less) favorably because of the friendship. These questions arise time and time again. The end result is that the partner-to-partner friendship becomes impossible to maintain, and the partnership suffers as a consequence.

That is not to say that partners cannot be friendly; in fact, friendliness is expected. But it is one thing to enjoy collegiality in an office environment. It is another to intertwine one's private life with one's co-workers.

2. Deal with Tough Problems as They Arise
In the business of law, it's a rare day indeed when some decision or other does not have to be made by the partners.However, as we all know, some decisions are tougher than others. There's a natural tendency to avoid making a difficult choice, in a vague hope that the issue will somehow evaporate. So we put the problem in a drawer, close the drawer and hope the problem goes away. It never does, of course--it usually becomes more exacerbated. This, in turn, leads to frustration for the people affected by the problem, who understandably feel there is a weakness or lack of leadership in the firm.

As a partner in a law firm, you must deal with the issues as they arise--be they big or small, onerous or easy. Failure to make tough choices in an expeditious manner only leads to an erosion of the faith and confidence that are necessary to maintain a strong partnership. It does great damage to your organization.

3. Be Fair and Equitable
All members of your firm must be treated fairly and, more importantly, they must believe that they and others are being treated fairly. This sense of fairness may be difficult to achieve because, quite often, decisions about how to treat people are made subjectively.

Impartiality is the watchword. Implementing alternate sets of rules for different people, tolerating double standards and arbitrarily making decisions without supporting information undermine the fairness element essential to strong partnerships.

4. Choose Partners for the Right Reasons
The individual partners are the cornerstones of the partnership. That statement may seem obvious, but it is worth reiterating because these days partners seem to be "a dime a dozen" in many firms.

Often people are made partners for the wrong reasons--political, economic or otherwise. Partners must be chosen carefully. They must share the same set of values and have the same goals as the rest of the partnership. They must be prepared to put aside personal needs for the amelioration and strength of the firm. To call someone "your partner" should necessarily imply a common bond, not simply that this person is a co-worker with a certain degree of seniority. When times go bad for the firm, it is safe to say that it is usually those who've been made partner for the wrong reasons who will depart first. Typically, their sense of loyalty to the firm is weak or nonexistent. Choosing partners wisely may be the most important responsibility of the partnership.

5. Involve Others in All Matters
From working on files, to cultivating clients, to planning firm direction, too many lawyers tend to think, "No one can do it as well as me." That attitude cannot fly in a strong firm partnership. It is essential to involve others in all matters. By enlisting other members of the firm in decision making, you build loyalty and commitment. By seeking their advice on particular projects, you show they are valued as important members of the firm.

Sometimes you'll have to solicit participation, other times it will come voluntarily. In all cases, though, you must ensure that people are prepared to accept the responsibility. Depending on the matter at hand, involve as many people as realistically possible. Enlist your partners, associates, paralegals and support staff. Everyone wants to be part of a community. And don't stick only to personal favorites--otherwise, you violate the fairness principle.

6. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Perhaps the primary element that goes into building and maintaining a strong partnership is continuous, across-the-board communication. That, however, requires an environment conducive to communicating.

Hold regular partnership meetings, staff meetings and ongoing lunches with all levels of lawyers and staff to create an open environment. Let people know what you are doing and what the firm is doing. And if something is bothering you, say so. Do not keep things bottled up-it only builds resentment and frustration.

Of equal if not more importance, listen to and take an interest in what others have to say. After all, communication is a two-way street. Conversely, closed-door meetings, secret plans and information withholding are surefire ways to demotivate members of the firm.

Through Ever-Changing Times
Building and maintaining a strong partnership takes a huge effort. But by paying attention to the principles outlined here, the chances of making your partnership ever stronger will increase. When times are good for a partnership, it is easy for the partnership to survive. But when times go bad, as they are sure to do, your stronger partnership will be better able to face any difficulty that confronts it because the fundamentals are in place. n

Stephen Weinstein ( sw@swlaw.ca) is a partner in the Montreal law firm Weinstein & Associates, (514) 932-5660.