No matter how strong a firm’s culture seems to be, there will be periods when some partners are in conflict. The conflict may not be material – perhaps a shouting match in a meeting that later calms down, or it may be a brief outbreak of longstanding animosities that are normally avoided by keeping the partners apart. However, some conflicts grow to a level that causes one or more partners to leave the firm, perhaps ultimately leading to a dissolution.
Law firm leaders need to be aware of both latent and open conflict between partners, but they also have to be ready to act quickly when serious or lasting disputes emerge. We have the resources to deal with conflict in our profession, but leaders often fail to call them up soon enough.
A firm can strengthen its culture by using conflict-resolution resources and developing better skills in formal leaders and supervisors. Assuming that leaders have their ears to the ground and are aware of partner-conflict situations, there are at least four resources to draw upon.
The Neutral Friend
Sometimes the intervention of a leader will seem heavy-handed. One or both parties may deny that conflict even exists (despite all the evidence you’ve received). If the leader can find a respected partner who can talk to both and remind them of the firm’s mission and culture, that partner can achieve a near-term solution. This quiet approach may be appreciated by partners who want to put the dispute behind them.
The Internal Mediator
Every firm that has a litigation team may have a partner who is a trained mediator. Many litigators have taken certification programs (often 40 hours or more), not to become mediators, but to understand how mediators tackle disputes between clients. A leader might approach that mediator/partner to intervene in a partner dispute. A trained mediator is always going to make it clear to the parties that: (1) they have no ability to “rule “on the issues: (2) the parties own the solutions: and (3) the mediator’s neutrality and confidentiality are guaranteed before and after the process. Because the internal mediator knows the firm well, he or she may be able to align the interests of the disputants with the firm and each other.
The External Mediator
At Edge, we have been asked a few times to act as an external mediator in a partner dispute. Two situations often lead to this outside referral. First, the partnership may be small and no one may be seen as sufficiently neutral or skilled to mediate the issues. Second, the dispute may be fairly high-stakes, and other internal attempts may have failed. While there are many available mediators in your community, you will want to do what we do for our clients – engage a mediator who understands the law firm business. A mediator, after advance preparation, typically takes one to three days to tackle serious disputes. Lawyers, conscious of lost time, may work harder to get to “yes” sooner than later. The cost to the firm is substantially less than ongoing conflict or litigation would be.
Develop Basic Conflict Resolution Skills for More Leaders and Senior Partners
Many leaders and senior partners have a reservoir of respect and trust throughout the firm. Their status has been earned. Those leaders can be front-line conflict resolvers if they have some training in mediation skills (without taking on certification). In my experience, such leaders are building on some communication skills they already have. For example, in a recent course that I designed for legal-services organizations and public-interest law firms, the leaders practiced:
- identifying and adjusting their preferred conflict-resolution style,
- structuring a “difficult conversation,”
- active listening,
- re-framing negative statements, and
- generating options for parties to consider.
To add some conflict resolution skills to a leader’s toolkit is to recognize reality. We dislike conflict. We’d rather avoid it. We hope that our culture will overcome the conflict. Yet conflict happens, and it can disrupt client service, partner harmony and the firm’s future. Leaders have to act rapidly to intervene with a third party or their own skill set.
In addition to being a lawyer with a master’s from Harvard Law School and an LLB from the University of Western Ontario, Edge Principal David Cruickshank is a trained mediator who has taught at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law School.