Law Students and Young Lawyers

Talking to Partners about Problems

Since I retired, I do not speak to law firm partners very often, which is just fine with me. For one thing, I cannot afford to speak to them about professional matters. For another, I have had quite my fill of speaking to partners about topics that they know precious little about, such as how to run a law firm profitably while maintaining a positive and welcoming culture.

On the other hand, I frequently speak to associates.  Ironically, one of the topics which I often find myself speaking to them about is their communications with partners. Here is what I have learned: associates are not good at communicating with partners.

The first thing that associates should know about communicating with partners is that they should start doing that long before problems arise. Avoiding partners because they appear to be too busy, or the associate is insecure, or the partner is intimidating, are bad things that make it all the more difficult to communicate with them once there is a crisis. Associates should establish their relationships early so that they are there when needed. (Alternatively, associates should determine that the relationships are not going to be there when needed and start looking for another firm.)

Before we get to the nitty gritty of how to communicate with partners about problems, here are some things about problems to keep in mind:

  1. Problems come in all shapes and sizes. These include ethical issues, mistakes, potential negligence claims, unhappy clients, time write-offs, bad accounts receivable, personal issues, and bullies.
  2. Associates will encounter issues, regardless of how smart they are. It is just a matter of time.
  3. No matter how long a problem is left sitting in a corner (or in a file, or on a network), it will rarely solve itself. Usually, problems get bigger when left in the dark.
  4. Problems which have been ignored tend to make themselves heard at inopportune times. One such time is the middle of the night when we should all be sleeping.
  5. When an issue does blow up, it typically does so in an unpleasant manner which may involve one or more of an irate client, a furious partner, a lost client, a complaint to the Law Society, or a statement of claim.
  6. As Albert Einstein said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” That is one of the reasons that the person who created the problem may not be the best person to decide how to fix it. 
  7. The other reason that we often need to seek out help to fix a problem is that the person who created a problem will often have difficulty being objective about it.
  8. Bad news does not improve with age. When problems arise, associates have to speak to the responsible partner immediately.
  9. Potential negligence claims have to be reported to your insurers right away. Lawyers who try to fix the problem themselves may be risking their insurance coverage.

And now for my hints about how associates should communicate with partners when there is a problem that needs to be fixed:

  1. If you screwed up, try to use unambiguous language such as, “I screwed up.” Do not use passive language to present the facts as if you were merely an innocent by-stander to whom bad things have happened. Partners are looking for you to be aware of your mistakes and to take responsibility for them.
  2. Ixnay on being defensive. Now is the time to present facts, not to argue that it really was not your fault.
  3. Provide your recommendations on how to handle the situation. Do the research.  Make it as easy as possible for the partner to decide how to fix things. Partners will be impressed with someone who makes a mistake and takes responsibility for it, as opposed to someone who creates a problem and dumps it on the partner to fix.
  4. If you are uncomfortable with how the partner wants to fix the problem because you think that the partner’s proposed course of action is unethical or risky, take the time to fully understand the partner’s proposed course of action. If the partner’s explanation does not satisfy you, think about who else you should contact for advice, preferably within the firm, but, if necessary, outside of the firm. Remember that your license to practice and personal liability may be in play.

Finally, let me take you back to the beginning of this article, where I wrote that associates should establish good relationships with partners early or if that is not possible, start looking for another firm. That may sound harsh, but the simple fact is that issues are going to arise and the time to find out that you are working for jerks who will not have your back is not when you need their help.

This article was originally published by Law360 Canada, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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