Hello to All!
Copied below is a somewhat altered version of my September ’09 Lawyers USA column. And, oh yes…if you’d like to see other columns and quotes of mine in Lawyers USA, click here. While visiting their site, I hope you can take some time to explore all the good materials and ideas it continues to offer attorneys and staff.
Preventing Partnership (and Family!) Implosions Before It’s Too Late
All too often we hear about law firms or extended families that find themselves in the midst of highly emotional, extremely costly and messy disputes. These conflicts can be over a lot of little things or fallout from a major disruption, such as a dishonest partner or estate-related jealousies or greed following the death of a beloved family member.
In many family situations, outsiders would have never predicted that anything or anyone – including greed – could trump a seemingly loving family’s loyalty to one another. And yet some families are torn apart by greed, a lack of healthy communications and in some cases, raw desperation in tough times. The same is true for many law firm partnerships that to outsiders appear successful and well run by a united leadership team. We’ve all seen, however, too many partnerships implode in spite of the partners’ prior loyalties to one another, their shared professional bonds, complementary skills or many years of working together.
We must never underestimate the damage that can be caused by greed, desperation,deceit, assuming a conclusion BEFORE having all the factsw and deficient or misunderstood communications. Nor should we discount the damaging fallout spread through a family or law office due to longstanding, unresolved disputes. And unfortunately, challenging economic times can make these destructive scenarios more likely.
Below are a few “starter” tips (far from all-inclusive) to consider when extended family or partner disputes arise. They may not always help prevent the ultimate dissolution of a firm or family unit. They have proven, however, to help sparring parties move toward a timely resolution that allows everyone to get on with their lives without lasting bitterness, the scarring of permanent anger or the waste of yet more time due to destructive behaviors:
(1) If you have an “issue” or disagreement with a partner or family member, don’t bury your head in the sand or otherwise procrastinate. Squarely face the conflict. Talk things over sooner rather than later. 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 onto.
(2) Search for and find the real facts. To not do so means you may be unknowingly (or in some cases very knowingly!) relying upon malicious gossip, incorrect and/or possibly intentionally false information.
(3) When discussing the disputed issues, ensure your imaginary “thick skin” is on at all times so as to maximize a continuing progress towards resolution and to minimize any emotional meltdowns (including the spewing of words you may later regret).
(4) 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 finding a fair resolution. Consistently be an 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 their way through the painful, unpleasant and sensitive issues that need to be addressed and resolved.
(5) If you feel you lack the emotional stability and/or necessary communication skills to work patiently and steadfastly toward resolution, then hire a third party neutral such as a mediator. The right facilitator can help you navigate through the waters of awkwardness, miscommunications, false impressions, the pain of conflict and/or the points of strong disagreement.
(6) 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).
(7) Understand that if you do choose to handle conflicts disrespectfully, hastily or harshly without getting all the facts and trying to resolve all disputes in a fair and respectful manner, there will no doubt be long term negative consequences – many of which you may never have anticipated.
Through my years as an attorney, mediator, law office advisor, management consultant and plain ol’ southern gal I have seen firsthand what runaway greed and unresolved conflicts can do to a law firm, family or business. 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 families, friendships and long-term professional relationships. We can do so by timely addressing our conflicts – whether big or small – wisely, honestly, calmly and respectfully. This is easier said than done, but so worth our courage, time and honest efforts.
(c) Nancy Byerly Jones 2009 – 2022