Law firm partnerships like to project the image of a cohesive unit. One strategy that they employ is to insist that although Partners may disagree with each other in a Partners’ meeting, once they leave the room, they all must support the group’s decision.
Another is to require that Partners act as though they like each other, especially when they don’t.
Of course, every Partner knows that law partnerships may be many things, but they are rarely a cohesive unit. And, as William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, these types of communication strategies are often, “more honour’d in the breach than the observance.”
With this background, let me tell you about Cooper, a Partner who had the good fortune to work closely with Mara, who was one of the firm’s star Associates. Occasionally Cooper would confide in Mara about which of his Partners he respected, liked, tolerated, or despised. Sometimes, after a particularly frustrating Partners’ meeting, Cooper would blow off steam by telling Mara about the idiotic things that were said by some of the lesser lights at the meeting.
Cooper might have felt a bit guilty about breaching the sanctity of the partnership confessional if he did not know that a number of the other Partners also had loose lips (which we have all heard have something to do with sinking ships.)
Every Managing Partner has to grapple with the independent and competitive nature of lawyers, and their resistance to being managed. One Managing Partner who I knew used to say that his goal was for the Partners at his firm to be externally competitive, but not internally competitive. Of course, he was saying that because his Partners were internally competitive, a state of affairs that he was never able to fix.
You might think that lawyers are smart enough to know that, as John F. Kennedy said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and that rowing in the same direction is the best way to achieve success. Or, to put it another way, Partners should strive for the success of the firm as a whole instead of for their own individual success. As John Pugsley said, “being the richest man on a sinking ship is a bitter victory.”
But this principle does not really apply to the legal profession, where a Partner with a great book of business can always take their riches and jump onto another ship.
I believe that the nature of the beast is now such that the traditional law firm is rarely a happy, cooperative place to work. More often, it is a collection of Partners who stay together while it works for them and move on when it does not.
It occurs to me that it was not always that way. I think that ‘back in the day,’ it was a place where people tried harder to find ways to appreciate each other’s unique abilities, bridge their differences, and stay together for the long term.
Nowadays they just vote with their feet, or force others to walk the plank.