two paths in the forest

Making a decision to leave your law firm partnership is likely to be the hardest career decision you will ever make. How do you know when the timing is right, for you and for the firm?

disappointed expectations

The ability of a law firm to achieve its strategic ambitions, especially those measurable in terms of sustained financial performance, frequently depends on the ability of the senior partners to negotiate and define the roles that each will play in setting and following the firm's strategic course. The spectrum of roles and responsibilities that partners assume, range from business issues to purely practice issues with a lot of middle territory in-between.

When partners tell me "I have had enough," they usually talk about "what's wrong" in the area of partnership governance. They describe situations where partners are not living up to their expectations of one another. Sometimes they have personal concerns about the health and state of mind of one of their colleagues. Quite often it is a combination of concerns, developed over a period of time, which cause them to lose hope in their own future in the firm and perhaps, in the future of the firm itself.

vital signs and symptoms

It is hard to diagnose a disease without first recognizing its symptoms. Do any of these comments sound familiar?

  • "We are not working together, it's evident to others."
  • "I want him to know that he is avoiding me and running away from the office."
  • "My concern is that we can't go on like this. We need to make a plan. I don't have the patience anymore."
  • "I don't even want to discuss anything with them anymore; it just leads to never ending debate."
  • "I am spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort dealing with (name of partner)."
  • "Nothing changes. We make great plans but we fail to deliver."
  • "Our market is changing and we are not preparing to compete."
  • "My partner is in bad shape. He looks tired, lacks enthusiasm, and is moody or grouchy."
  • "My partner is not managing what's going on in the office. She is living in a kind of denial."

Symptoms are usually pretty easy to identify. What is less obvious may be your own reactions to "what's wrong" in the firm. When I ask partners, "How are you dealing with things?" I hear these kinds of responses:

  • "I'm trying to stay busy....stay calm.....stay patient."
  • "I'm trying to separate my personal friendships from business relationships."
  • "I'm keeping certain partners at a distance."
  • "I try to minimize the complications of our lack of communication on others."

When I ask, "What are you not doing that you want to be doing, they often respond:

  • Define our roles
  • Stop the escalating discomfort
  • Shut down the gossip
  • Confront the facts with each other – deal with reality
  • Get acceptance of me without judgments
  • Rebuild trust
  • Move ahead
  • Want others to accept that they don't know what I think
  • Be clear about what I want to talk about
  • Understand more and debate less
  • Confide in my partners
  • Seek peace

three questions

When partners feel they lack the means to achieve what they want, they become discouraged. Certainly, when they are not doing what they want to be doing, things are "going wrong" for them.

The most important questions are:

Is it worth fixing?

There is the old adage, "Success is sweeter when you go through adversity together."

    • From your vantage point? what is at stake for you?
    • What is your business case for staying?

Are there realistic possibilities to fix it?

    • Is there a way for communication to take place?
    • Does my partner or do my partners have the will to build a bridge to the future together?
    • Has trust been so shattered that we can't move forward?
    • Or, can we rebuild trust over time, working together on agreed actions that get results?
    • What is my personal commitment to collaboration?
    • Am I willing to consider options and to adjust my own behavior and expectations along with my peers?
    • Or, have I passed the tipping point, with no desire to make it work anymore?

What is the consequence to me, my partners, the firm and our clients if I do nothing and simply maintain the status quo?

    • To what extent is doing nothing an option and for how long?

Analyzing these three categories of questions will help you to decide whether, "enough is enough." It is not a personal failing to change course. It is a sign of strength to confront the realities of your situation and pursue new opportunities. It is also a sign of tremendous strength to ask for help – either in fixing "what's wrong" or in evaluating whether "enough is enough."

Trusted friends in the profession, skilled business consultants, even your own partners can often be resources in making a decision about whether to go or to stay.

the "wait and see" alternative

Sometimes it seems easier to let things take their own course, for better or worse: Avoid both seeking the evidence you need to diagnose a problem, and evaluating the viability of resolving it or doing nothing.

Sometimes partners are initially afraid to proceed, even cautiously, because they fear an "explosion." They feel the explosion may come in the guise of previously unexpressed feelings and emotions, difficult conversations with unknown outcomes, unwelcome opinions from disliked colleagues and disruptions in valued professional relationships. The ironic thing is that these things will happen anyway when partners don't address their concerns and decide just to leave quietly.

Which do you suppose is likely to have the most adverse consequences: a managed departure (should it come to that) or blind-siding your partners after it is too late to even try to talk about it, much less"fix it?"

"We need to talk about this."

Every satisfying and significant relationship in our lives involves expressing feelings, sharing ideas and opinions, and wading into the "unknown." When the parties accept certain guidelines and conditions for communication, it is entirely possible to come out the other side unscathed, more confident, and even relieved that they were able to work through an important issue together. When they can't resolve their differences, they can plan for a more amicable and constructive departure with fewer long-term adverse consequences for all concerned.

Lisa Walker Johnson

Walker Clark LLC members have more than a half century of experience helping lawyers and law firms make tough decisions about their futures. Click here to learn more.