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Law firm partners must be more than just players

By Nancy Byerly Jones
Dolan Media Newswires

Like all driven professionals, law-firm partners sometimes can disappoint when it comes to dealing with colleagues’ personal problems.

The reason is simple and more than understandable when seen in the context of everyday life: When a potential issue emerges, the wisest path is often not to rush to any conclusions.

If one of your partners has a legitimate problem, however — such as alcoholism or an anger-management issue — delaying action can be playing with fire. If you don’t take the necessary steps to address the issue in a prompt and appropriate manner, you must accept the fact that you are equally responsible for any harm caused to your clients and the firm.

You must also face the fact that your inaction indicates that, in essence, you really don’t care, which means you’re in the wrong partnership — and possibly the wrong profession.

Too many lawyers turn away from their partners’ problems when they concern alcohol or drug abuse, sexual harassment, chronically poor client relations, repeated broken promises, steady decrease in fees or a sloppy work product. They hope someone else will step in to help; better yet, they hope the affected attorney will instantly snap out of the destructive pattern and things will return to the way they always wanted and dreamed the partnership would be.

Several management tools can assist partners in facing tough challenges, but for starters, a critical question: Do you have a written partnership agreement?

To put it simply, you better. Take it out and double-check it to make sure it adequately covers how to handle suspected problems, including:

  • substance abuse
  • alcoholism
  • client neglect
  • irresponsibility
  • excessive defensiveness, lying, etc.
  • repeated broken promises
  • extreme and ongoing disorganization
  • missed deadlines
  • growing number of client and/or staff complaints
  • excessive absences
  • verbal violence and other forms of bullying
  • sexual and/or other demeaning harassment
  • poor and/or inconsistent work quality
  • noncompliance with firm policies and procedures
  • inadequate or improper staff supervision

More importantly, are those problems addressed in compliance with your partnership agreement, or handled differently each time?

And if you have no partnership/shareholder policy that covers how to handle problematic attorneys, how have you addressed such issues? Were they dealt with promptly, consistently and successfully? Was the subject partner left hanging out on a limb to handle the matter on his own? Was it a group effort to find an expeditious, fair and least-harmful resolution for all concerned? If not, why were some partners let off the hook in resolving the problem partner issues?

Detailed provisions in partnership agreements regarding how to handle problem lawyers are absolutely essential. They are no less important than budgets, separation agreements and other contracts.

Still, too many partners don’t take the time to document their partnership/shareholder arrangements, much less spell out how they plan to handle potential problems.

Why then are problem partners and potentially harmful other issues ignored so often?

Because it’s awkward and uncomfortable to point an accusatory finger at a partner. Because it can (and usually does) take enormous amounts of time and energy to face tough issues. And because many attorneys want someone else to do the dirty work.

The buck starts and stops with each partner. When it comes to our legal work, we are accustomed to dealing with rough seas almost every day. The same expectation must be applied to our valued — and only human — colleagues.

If we care to do the “partner thing” only when all is going smoothly, why in the world are we in a partnership in the first place?

Nancy Byerly Jones is an attorney and certified family financial mediator who heads up NBJ Consulting & Conflict Resolution. She can be contacted at nbj@nbjconsulting.com.

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