Short Version

Law firm (and other professional) partners sometimes disappoint each other as in any relationship involving we human beings.  Often our not rushing to conclusions too quickly is the the wisest path to take.  If one of your partners has a legitimate and serious problem, however,  such as alcoholism or anger management issues, we are playing with fire not to face it squarely and quickly.  This means taking all necessary steps to ensure clients are not hurt or otherwise neglected because of the problem partner’s issues and to protect your partner from themselves.  If you don’t care enough about your clients, partners and firm to take these steps in a prompt and appropriate manner, then you must accept the fact that you are equally responsible for any harm caused to firm clients and others.  Period.

And….you must also face the fact that if you really don’t care, you are in the wrong partnership and possibly the wrong profession as well.

Longer Version

My husband and I share our mountainside farm with an assortment of big and small 4-legged “family.”  We voluntarily committed to care for them through thick or thin starting the moment they came into our world.  We should and do take that responsibility very seriously.  Through the years, we have had many tough situations to face from helping a mare in trouble deliver her foal to helping them live a decent quality of life in spite of their birth defects or other challenges and everything in between.

Needless to say, we wish none of our animals ever suffered for any reason big or small, but life isn’t that way for them or we humans.

The same “shoulds” of responsible animal caretaking attach to any partnership — Regardless of what happens, partners must be there for one another no matter how uncomfortable, time-consuming or tough the situation may be.

Ask Yourself ….

If one of your partners was suffering with serious personal problems, would you rearrange your schedule to help out however you could, insist that she gets the proper medical or other help needed, assume interim responsibility for her cases and administrative responsibilities (or help ensure they are assigned to the appropriate attorney), initiate a quality control audit to ensure her clients’ matters are in good order?

My bet is that you answered “Yes” to all these questions. If not, however, I would recommend that you stop reading this piece now and take the time to figure out why not?

Another Question…Do We Keep Our Heads in the Sand?

Some attorneys (too many) and other professionals turn their heads away from their partners’ problems when they concern issues such as alcohol or drug abuse, sexual harassment, chronically poor client relations, repeated broken promises, steady decrease in fees generated and sloppy work product. They hope someone else will step in to help.  Better yet, they hope the problem attorney will instantly snap out of their destructive pattern and things will be like they wanted and dreamed the partnership would be.

If we choose to have partners with whom we share successes and risks then it goes without saying that we are committing to be there through thick and then…and to never put our heads in the sand regarding partnership matters.

Several management tools can assist partners in facing tough challenges, but for starters, a critical question:

Do you have a written partnership agreement?

Sure hope you do and that you keep it updated as needed.  Take it out now and double check to make sure it adequately covers how to handle suspected problems such as:

  • 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 others
  • sexual and/or other demeaning harassment
  • >poor and/or inconsistent work quality<
  • noncompliance with firm policies and procedures
  • inadequate or improper staff supervision
  • etc!

More importantly …..

Are problems addressed in compliance with your partnership agreement or differently each time?

And, if you have no partnership/shareholder policy that covers how to handle problematic firm 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
  • Was it a group effort to find an expeditious, fair and least-harmful resolution for all concerned?
  • And, if not a group effort, why were some partners let off the hook in resolving the problem partner issues?

My Recommendation ….. (but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or management consultant to know this!)

Detailed provisions in partnership agreements regarding how to handle problem attorneys are absolutely essential in firms. The need for one is no less important (and common-sense smarts!) than the reasons behind advising our clients to detail their buy/sell, separation agreements and other contracts in writing, to have a reliable, realistic budget, etc.

Like the cobbler’s kids with no shoes, however, too many partners often don’t take the time to document their partnership/shareholder arrangements much less spelling out how they will handle potential problems.

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

    • First, it’s awkward and uncomfortable to point an accusatory finger at a partner.
    • Second, it can take (and usually does) enormous amounts of time and energy to face tough issues; and
    • Third, many attorneys want “someone else” to do the dirty work. They are more than willing to keep their heads in the sand while waiting for the “fix it” fairy to appear and work her (or his) magic.

The Bottom Line …?

Rescue Teams
The Best Teams Stick Together
No Matter What!

In non-solo law and other professional firms, the buck starts and stops with each partner.  Each and every partner are the ones and the “someone else” who should do the dirty work no matter how strong their desire is to run like hell away from the issues.  And, if we only care to do the “partner thing” when all is going smoothly, why in the world are we in a partnership in the first place?!

As always, thanks for “listening” and even better, thanks for sharing your experiences, comments and suggestions below.

About the author 

Nancy Byerly Jones

Nancy Byerly Jones and her husband reside on their mountainside ranch (“Little Hee Haw Farm”) with an energetic “family” of horses, donkeys (large and miniature), dogs and cats. Their favorite pastime is sharing the joy and fun of their animals and ranch life with their family, friends and clients.

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