Resolving Conflict: Trouble at the Top and Why it’s sometimes best to part company

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By Jonathan Middleburgh | Mar 9, 2021

I have written previously (in an article in the Edge Communiqué entitled ‘Law Firm Armaggedon: How a major Law Firm nearly imploded and how the conflict was resolved’) about how the survival of law firms sometimes requires the capacity to resolve senior-level conflict. In that article I shared the story of one such conflict and how it was resolved through a long and difficult resolution process.

On that occasion conflict resolution achieved a truce between the key protagonists. In the situation described in this article the outcome was a recognition on the part of one of the key protagonists that it was best for everyone if he leave the firm.  While ostensibly a less dramatic situation, in reality this outcome was important for the continued flourishing of the firm.

My Relevant Background

I described my relevant background in my earlier article.

I am an ex-barrister (I practised at the Bar in London for 12 years), schooled primarily in an adversarial approach to dispute resolution.

Around fifteen years ago, I started to retrain as a psychologist, completing my undergraduate equivalency in psychology while still practising at the Bar. After leaving the Bar, I continued my studies and started to practise as an occupational / organisational psychologist. Over the years I have worked extensively in the field of senior-level talent development in law firms and corporate legal departments, both in the UK where I live and also in the US and internationally.

As I explained in my earlier article, given the breadth of my background, I have been involved in a variety of projects, which defy easy categorisation. Several of these projects have involved senior-level conflict resolution, which has become a significant strand of my work.

A Case Study: Trouble at the Top

Unlike my earlier case study there was no cataclysmic precipitating incident that sparked my involvement with the law firm in question. Rather I was brought in ostensibly to help the Management Committee of the law firm to work together more effectively.

The background was that the law firm was a mid-sized regional firm in the UK.  The firm had grown rapidly over the last 10 years, through a mixture of organic growth and as the result of a couple of large mergers.

The Managing Partner of the firm was half way through a second term of tenure, having been re-elected unanimously as Managing Partner prior to his second term.  He had been at the firm for over 20 years and was coming towards the end of a very successful career as a transactional lawyer.

The other members of the Management Committee were the heads of the firm’s key departments – litigation, property, corporate / commercial, banking & finance and private client – together with the firm’s finance director / COO.

My introduction to the firm was via a consultancy that had been helping the firm with the development of a new 5 year strategy and the implementation of some key organisational and technological changes.  The consultancy, in discussion with the firm’s HR Director, had identified that it might be helpful for someone to do some team development work with the firm’s Management Committee, as the Committee was not fully aligned on some key aspects of the proposed changes.

The HR Director felt that it would be helpful for the Management Committee to have a team charter and described this as the core of the necessary work when I first met with her.  I was unconvinced that this was really at the heart of the necessary work, but decided to refrain from expressing this until I was clearer about what was actually going on.

What was clear from my initial briefing, however, was that all was not well at the top of this organisation.  Although not presented as of key concern in this initial briefing, it was clear that there was a degree of conflict between members of the Management Committee. It was also clear to me that if the top team was unable to align it was highly unlikely that the planned changes would be fully effective.

Choice of Process

The HR Director was convinced that the implementation of a ‘team charter’ would help ameliorate behaviour of Management Committee members.  I initially tried to question why a team charter would be a panacea but it was clear to me that the HR Director was focused on the team charter and did not want to listen to other possible approaches to the situation.

Rather than continue to debate this issue with the HR Director I decided that the best approach was to agree that I would work towards the Management Committee embracing a team charter.  I suggested that I have a mix of conversations with the team members combined with a series of workshops dealing with issues emerging from the conversations.  I suggested that I speak first to the Managing Partner and that I then have meetings with the other Management Committee members. I explained that I felt that the Management Committee members might welcome some coaching and support in relation to their respective roles in the change process, in addition to my providing support to the Management Committee as a team.

First round of meetings

I met first with the Managing Partner.  He was very happy to engage with the process and acknowledged that the behaviour of the Management Committee was holding back the change process.  It emerged from the discussion that the Managing Partner felt that the head of litigation was a particularly disruptive influence on the Management Committee. He was resistant to many of the proposed changes, in particular to some of the proposed changes in technology and to more centralised resourcing.

According to the Managing Partner the head of litigation was undermining some of the work of the Management Committee and the external consultants.  He was apparently having ‘offline’ conversations with Management Committee members outside the formal Management Committee meetings, seeking to persuade them to hold out against some of the recommendations or to resile from changes that had already been discussed and agreed. The Managing Partner also suspected that he was ‘briefing’ against some of the proposed changes, i.e. telling his direct reports and possibly others that he was not in favour of the changes.

I tried to ask the Managing Partner whether he had called out this behaviour and, if not, why not – but it was clear to me that the Managing Partner was very uncomfortable discussing this and I was concerned that it would damage the relationship if I pushed him too hard on this.

The meetings that I held with the other Management Committee members confirmed that the head of litigation was a disruptive force on the Committee and highly resistant to the proposed changes.  The other Committee members all mentioned that he tended to dominate Committee meetings and that his contributions used up a disproportionate amount of the available airtime.  While it was clear that the Managing Partner was highly respected as a brilliant lawyer it was also clear that his leadership of the Management Committee was lacking and that he was, in the view of several of the other Committee members, highly averse to conflict and confrontation.

A couple of other factors emerged from these initial meetings.  First, it was clear that although the larger of the firm’s mergers had taken place several years previously it remained highly significant in terms of actual and perceived loyalties of the Committee members.  Several of the Committee members referenced the mergers and would refer to other members according to whether they were ‘original’ or ‘legacy’ i.e. whether they had been with the ‘original’ firm or one of the legacy firms with which the ‘original’ firm had merged.

It was clear to me that Committee members had retained their identities as either ‘original’ firm partners or ‘legacy’ firm partners and that those identities remained determinative of how partners were viewed by each other.  There remained a web of alliance and commonality between the ‘original’ firm partners and a similar web of alliance and commonality between the ‘legacy’ firm partners.  Each group was distrustful of the other group.

Second, it emerged that I needed to tread carefully in terms of my work with the Committee as a team.  Several of the Committee members referenced a previous disastrous engagement with an external consultant who had done some work with the team, which had backfired badly.  The consultant had held a kick off meeting without laying the groundwork by having individual meetings with the team members.  In the kick off meeting the consultant had done an exercise with the team where he encouraged the team to imagine their fellow team members as common animals (badger, beaver, lion, tiger etc.) and to explain why they identified which particular colleague with which particular animal, based on that animal’s behaviours and attributes.

The exercise had derailed in a spectacular fashion.  A couple of the team members chose to ‘zoomorphise’ their colleagues as animals which those colleagues regarded as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, highly offensive.  Everyone maintained a polite front during the meeting but there were post-meeting recriminations, the work with the consultant was abandoned, and the exercise had clearly scarred team relationships for a while.  There was an understandable desire to avoid anything that might be a repeat of this disastrous experience.

I chose to meet the head of litigation towards the end of this first round of meetings.   He was ostensibly extremely affable and keen to emphasise that he thought the team development work was an excellent idea and that he welcome personal coaching.  However he was careful to extract several reassurances that our conversation was entirely confidential and spent a significant part of the conversation critiquing the proposed changes, emphasising the critical nature of his role to the success of the firm and explaining why, in his opinion, the litigation department was significantly different from the other departments such that his department should be excepted from several of the changes, particularly with regard to centralised resourcing.

I had been forewarned as to two of the head of litigation’s key traits – a tendency to interrupt while being asked questions and a propensity to keep on talking way beyond the scope of the question that had been asked.

The First Workshop

I decided to play it safe in the first workshop.  I thought that it was important to build rapport with the team and to have a relatively gentle workshop rather than trying to tackle anything too ambitious.

I gave the Management Committee some general feedback from the conversations that I had held with them.  I fed back with regard to the previous disastrous team development intervention and discussed with the team how that intervention had been counterproductive and caused considerable friction within the team rather than improving team relationships. I also spent some time discussing the fact that legacy relationships (i.e. relationships carried over from the ‘original’ firm and from the merger firms) still seemed to affect the dynamics of the group and there was general agreement as to this and how there was still a perception that some loyalty was owed to the legacy network of relationships.

We discussed in generic terms the key attributes of a high functioning team and the behaviours of such a team.  These were captured for later use in the team charter exercise. While everyone expressed a commitment to operating as a high functioning team there was an acceptance that it would take time and effort to shift the embedded dynamics of the team.

My approach subsequent to the First Workshop

Following this first round of meetings and the first team workshop I reflected on the approach I should adopt moving forward.

I decided to focus on the following areas in the one to one coaching conversations:

  1. Legacy relationships – It was clear to me that the head of litigation was using the loyalty created by legacy relationships to undermine the work of the Management Committee as a whole. This was unfortunate as it seemed to me that the Management Committee – with the exception of the head of litigation – was broadly aligned around the importance of the proposed changes.  So I decided, in my one to one coaching of the team members, to encourage them to focus on the importance of working together as one team and to seek out opportunities to work more collaboratively with those with whom they did not have legacy relationships.  This could be as simple as having more regular catch ups with those individuals. I also encouraged the consultants driving the change process to ensure that the internal working groups driving the change were made up of a mix of players, so that the group members did not all share legacy relationships. It transpired that several of the key working groups had key members who had strong legacy relationships and these groups were gradually mixed up as a result of my recommendations.

 

  1. Offline conversations – Much of the work of the Management Committee was being undermined by offline conversations seeded or coordinated by the head of litigation.  I decided to focus on steering the team members away from having these conversations, particularly conversations whose purpose was to undermine the proposed changes or to revisit decisions that had already been made by the Committee.  I thought that it was unlikely that the head of litigation would change his approach to a more positive one – and, assuming this supposition was correct, I believed that it was important that the other team members deprive him of the oxygen he was being given to fuel resistance to the changes.

 

  1. Stronger leadership – I thought it was important that the Managing Partner showed stronger leadership, calling out bad behaviour on the part of the head of litigation. I was not sure whether he would be prepared to do so given his aversion to confrontation.  I felt that I needed to encourage him to do so.

Subsequent developments

I had further rounds of coaching conversations with each of the team members, each round being followed by a team workshop. The bulk of each team workshop was consumed with the team discussing detailed aspects of the strategic change process (with me observing this work) and a small but significant portion of each workshop was devoted to discussing the team’s development.

I followed the approach outlined above with regard to the one to one coaching conversations, focusing on the areas outlined above in addition to providing each individual with support in relation to their roles in the larger change process.

A number of things happened as a result of the approach I adopted:

  1. Within a couple of coaching sessions the team members – with the exception of the head of litigation – increasingly realised and articulated in conversation that their interests were aligned to those of the firm as a whole rather than those of the legacy organisations. They became careful to consider whether their decision-making was based on loyalty or affiliation because of legacy relationships – and also to avoid intuitively conferring with legacy colleagues when making decisions.   Several of the team members were surprised at the extent to which they had previously been influenced unconsciously or intuitively by legacy colleagues, and less so by their ‘newer’ colleagues (even though these ‘newer’ colleagues had been their colleagues for several years).

 

  1. The number of reported offline conversations declined, in particular conversations focused on reviewing or second-guessing decisions already made by the Management Committee. Specifically legacy colleagues of the head of litigation were careful to ensure that the head of litigation did not draw them into these conversations.

 

  1. Both legacy and non-legacy colleagues of the head of litigation became more likely respectfully to call out the head of litigation at their team meetings. Whereas the head of litigation had previously been allowed disproportionate airtime at these meetings, colleagues were more likely to ask him to make way for other contributions and to point out where he was being unjustifiably negative about aspects of the proposed changes.

 

It also important to note that the Managing Partner himself did not call out any of the head of litigation’s bad behaviour.  When I raised this with him he attributed it to wanting the team to take ownership of the situation rather than imposing a solution himself – but I believed that the reality was that he was uncomfortable doing so, despite my efforts to encourage him to show clearer leadership.

In any event, within a couple of coaching sessions with the head of litigation it was clear that he was starting to feel marginalised as a result of the developments outlined above. He recognised that he was feeling increasingly isolated on the Management Committee and I encouraged him to explore with me why that was the case and what was going on.  I was able to give him some of the feedback that the Managing Partner had not given him and to explain to him objectively and respectfully my observations as to his communication style. To my surprise he took some of these observations on board and realised, at least partly, that he was responsible for his own isolation.

Decision to part company

In subsequent conversations the head of litigation discussed with me whether he was capable of adapting his communication style – and whether he wanted to do so.

He recognised that aspects of his communication style were entrenched but felt that he could modulate aspects of his style if he wanted to do so.  Indeed, he became notably more positive in a couple of team workshops and yielded the floor in those meetings to his more constructive colleagues to an extent that was noticed by the other Management Committee members.

Ultimately, though, he decided that he did not want to accept the new status quo.  The new status quo would see (from his perspective) his leadership of his department sidelined in two key ways.  He would have to agree that the technological changes would apply as much to his department as to other departments.  He would also have to agree to more centralised resourcing, such that resources from the litigation team would be available to other departments depending on patterns of work flow.

For my part I encouraged him to think through the issues around his communication style – but as he edged towards the decision to leave his role I did not try to persuade him to stay.  My view was that the team would work together much more effectively were he to leave.

I also helped him to think through the sort of environment that might play to his strengths.  He decided (rightly in my view) that this would be an environment where he could call the shots.  After exploring a variety of options he accepted an in house role heading a small team in a legal department that handled a heavy volume of litigation.

Outcome and Conclusions

As the work with the Management Team continued, the team charter itself receded in significance – as I had suspected it would from the start.  We put together and agreed a team charter but in reality the charter captured many of the behaviours that the team had already started to exhibit.  Those behaviours would not have developed without the coaching of team members and the team workshops.

As indicated above, the head of litigation parted company with the organisation to take up  another role.  This provided the opportunity to refresh the team and to bring in a new team member – the newly appointed head of litigation who possessed qualities of communication and collaboration lacking in his predecessor.

Following the departure of the head of litigation the team started to work together more effectively and became increasingly aligned with regard to the changes, most of which were implemented within a relatively short timeframe.  The firm has continued to grow, pulling ahead of some of its direct competitors.

By way of footnote the Managing Partner himself moved on within a year of my concluding the work with the team and the ‘new’ head of litigation was voted as his successor.  I can in no way claim any credit for this development – but the change in team dynamics enabled a new leader to step up and to replace a Managing Partner who himself had shown some clear deficiencies in his own leadership style.

For me, the core work illustrated that it is sometimes better to recognise that a key relationship (in this case the relationship of the head of litigation with his senior management colleagues) is not working – and therefore to part company – rather than to assume that every dysfunction can be resolved or that it is worth the time and expenditure of organisational resource to try to do so.

 

For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at Middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343

Edge Principal Jonathan Middleburgh consults on senior human capital issues and coaches senior legal talent in both law firms and legal departments. A former practicing lawyer who is also trained as an organisational psychologist, Jonathan has a wide range of experience helping law firms and legal departments to develop their senior legal talent so as to maximise business outcomes.