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What you can do to help resolve partner conflict

It’s no secret that fighting among partners is a major cause of firm breakups.

Not so well known, however, is how to resolve the conflict.

When two individual partners or even two groups of partners are at odds with one another, the firm needs a middle person. That person can be the managing partner or a professional mediator. The middle person can broach the issue and bring about a resolution.

You as the office manager can play a vital role. Here`s how:

-You can recognize the conflict.

-You can bring it to the attention of the managing partner.

-You can help the managing partner engage and instruct a mediator, or you can help the managing partner prepare for and conduct mediation.

Warning signs

Conflict has warning signs. The first is usually a change in interactions between or among the attorneys. They may stop talking or begin avoiding one another. They might start communicating by way of formal or even snippy emails.

After that comes criticism, blaming one another for office problems or making disparaging remarks, albeit light-hearted, about one another.

There may be absenteeism or missed meetings—or raised voices.

Most of the time, the conflict is a personality conflict and not a conflict about the surface issue.

When two partners are arguing over, say, the use of an assistant, it is a safe bet there’s a personal problem; otherwise the two would have figured out how to solve the problem.

Here’s what it will cost you

It’s when those warning signs appear that the issue needs to be addressed. The goal is to stop the battle before it turns into a war, with the aftermath being a firm split-up.

What the mediator does is meet with both sides together and lay the cards on the table. The mediator will:

-Outline the cost of conflict, to the firm and to the partners individually.

-Point out the emotional costs of destroyed relationships that travel all the way down to staff, particularly among the staff who work for the warring partners.

-Explain that it destroys the attorney financial productivity because they are focussing more on the conflict than on generating business.

-Explain that it destroys client relationships, because clients pick up the negative atmosphere.

-And finally point to the personal loss, that if the conflict is not resolved, the firm will have to let someone go.

When people see the conflict in bottom line terms, they understand the damage they are causing.

Now for some logic

From there, talk about the purpose of the meeting.

Explain that it is not a gripe session but a resolution session and that resolution doesn’t mean either side wins.

Tell them there are no winners. Say that the firm does not want to decide who is right or wrong but to simply bring together human beings who have a lot of feelings and emotions.

Say that for resolution to happen, both sides need to come to the table willing to be open and fully disclose what is going on.

Say too that the surface issue, such as the use of a secretary, is not the real issue and that the attorneys must get down to the bottom line of what’s going on.

And now for the questions

With the preliminaries laid out, the actual resolution work can begin, and that’s done by asking the two sides a series of five questions.

1 – What is good about the working relationship between you?

That starts the exchange off positively. It forces the attorneys to realize they are supposed to be working with one another. It forces them to admit that, “Hey, that’s my partner, not my enemy.”

2 -What is the problem?

Ask them to tell their stories without leaving any stone unturned. Whatever the problems are, get them on the table.

Conflict lives inside each person as a story and both sides have to tell their stories from beginning to end in the way they need to tell them and without being interrupted.

Often just telling the story starts to bring about the resolution. Sometimes the attitude of one side starts to change. Sometimes one party apologizes and the issue is over.

Before giving the attorneys the opportunity to talk, however, set down the ground rules. Say, “You may hear things you don’t like. What the other side will say is not necessarily truth as you see it. But that is what the other person thinks is the truth, so you must listen. And then that person must listen to you.”

Tell each participant, “Don’t worry about the other side’s position but about what that side’s real concerns are. And try to think of what will be a fair resolution for everybody.”

3-What do you need to acknowledge about the other side and why does the other side deserve that credit?

Again that forces each side to look at the other in a positive light and recognize the contribution that side has made to the firm as well as to the attorneys personally.

4-Whom do you need to forgive, including yourself, and for what?

By now, the two sides have aired out the good and the bad. The positive way to go from there is to forgive or let things go.

The purpose at this point is to get the attorneys thinking about forgiving and realizing that everybody acts like a jerk occasionally, especially in a high stress environment.

5-What else do you need to say about this so you can be done with it?

That gives each side the opportunity to voice every possible objection so the entire matter can be put to rest.

At this point, the two sides often cite new issues that haven’t been brought up and that the other side is unaware of. As long as little parts of the conflict still fester, there can be no resolution so it is important to make sure nothing is left unsaid.

6-Given that you have had this ongoing conflict and that you recognize what it will cost both you and the firm, what’s the future going to look like?

That’s the final question. It gets both parties to come to their own resolution.

They must admit that in the light of the cost the conflict to themselves and the rest of the firm, the only logical response is to commit to a viable working relationship.

Do and don’t lists

After the meeting the mediator puts into summary words the heart of the conflict.

Write out what’s important to each and list the specific behavior that each side resents.

That’s includes even the small things that bother them on the interpersonal level, such as, “I wish he’d say please and thank you,” or “I don’t want her to interrupt me,” or “It makes me crazy how he paces up and down while I am on the phone.”

Then make a checklist of all the things each side has to do to not step on the others’ toes.

Give each attorney a copy so it is in black and white what has caused problem and what the individuals have to do to end it.

Whenever the conflict involves a substantial issue, the list is needed. When the disagreement is about finances or office management, both sides need to sign a formal agreement of resolution.

The problem with lawyers

Left alone, the conflict is unpleasant as well as dangerous to any business but in a law firm it can be devastating.

Lawyers aren’t trained to resolve disagreements but to fight them out. With litigators particularly, the dominant thinking is, “How do I win?”

In the business setting, that mindset is not effective. It prohibits establishing an effective collegial relationship.

The mediator’s job, therefore, is to explain to them that they are not dealing with the kind of conflict they are paid to take care of and that they are not on the frontlines. Instead, the matter has to be handled by establishing a common ground for a working relationship.

That is a big hurdle for most lawyers. It is completely opposite of the way they think. With your people management skills, however, you as office manager can set the stage for conflict resolution.

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