Partners at war

Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners are prime candidates. And the 20 or so partners who marched out of Dibb Lupton Alsop earlier this month could probably testify to the need for it.

It might go against the grain, but seeking the help of external counsellors – who assess personalities, work out individuals' values and goals and help resolve partnership disputes – is now a viable option for law firms.

A change in management style may not only spare ill-feeling, hurt and bad publicity, but also generate savings for a law firm.

All solicitors are familiar with stories of partners throwing files at trainees, shouting and swearing, office affairs, personality clashes and severe breakdowns in communication. Even the suave Peter Carter-Ruck, whose negotiating skills are legendary, is currently in dispute with partners at his firm, after his name, as senior partner, was removed from the firm's letterhead.

Perhaps the ultimate example is the unhappy tale of City firm Malkin Janners – where, in 1990, 19 partners signed an agreement to dissolve the partnership and the 20th, Robert Hurst, tried to sue them all.

According to Fox Williams senior partner Ronnie Fox, who has acted for solicitors who are in dispute with their firm, partnerships can become “too inward looking”.

“Using management consultants can help them regain a sense of their commercial position,” he says.

Counsellor Merry Graham of management consultants MCM Network specialises in healing corporate personality clashes or, as she puts it, behavioural clashes. Having previously worked with medical practitioners and accountants, Graham is now counselling lawyers at three separate law firms – one large, one medium-sized and one small.

She has been dealing with the legal sector for six months and claims not to know of any other counsellor doing similar work in the UK.

Graham emphasises she does not simply resolve conflicts but “gets the best out of people”. She makes the extraordinary claim that 70 per cent of all partnership conflicts could be pre-empted at recruitment level. “We help partnerships build and form, and we can check the compatibility of the partners by looking at their value systems.”

She does this by asking potential partners to fill in a questionnaire covering topics such as “I feel most vulnerable during conflict when…” and “when someone challenges me in front of the others I usually…”.

Graham, who also advises the United Nations on conflict resolution, says her strategies offer good value to law firms, where conflict costs dear in terms of their reputation and recruitment expenses.

For a solicitor on a salary of £18,000, Graham estimates she can save the firm £1,370 a year, less £320 for her services. This is calculated by looking at the time saved through speedier dispute resolution, shorter and more precise letters and memos, fewer mistakes due to misunderstandings and shorter meetings. Graham says that most interpersonal conflict stems from a lack of self-awareness.

Another common problem is a tendancy for disillusioned staff to pigeonhole people as having a character trait, such as arrogance, and then “gather evidence” which reinforces that trait.

Graham's services include diagnosing problems, group workshops and one-to-one coaching. Most of her work is done in groups because, even if there are only two main protagonists, other members of the team have allowed the conflict to develop. Lawyers, she says, “usually know what the problem is but choose to ignore it”.

The benefit of calling in someone from outside the firm, says Graham, is that it offers a breath of fresh air. “If you are involved in the conflict, it is really difficult to step back. Emotion gets in the way.

“People sometimes say they don't like it when we come in and stir up emotions. There are people who say they don't like the process, but they inevitably acknowledge the benefit of it.”

And she insists that her service will not foster a dependency on counsellors. “This is not about making people dependent on us. Quite the opposite.”

Whereas Graham is only beginning to corner the UK legal market, consultancies in the US are well ahead of the game.

Larry Richards, of US legal consultants Altman Weil, has worked as an “organisations doctor” for 17 years, assisting about 50 law firms a year. He resolves partnership difficulties, internal struggles, flagging morale, high staff turnover and internal disputes between departments.

According to Richards, lawyers are dispute-prone by nature. He says: “The better we are as a lawyer, the worse we are as a partner.”

Richards, who also assists merger talks by carrying out personality tests to identify compatibility, continues: “The law attracts personalities that enjoy conflict and the nature of the job means that departments, for example, the property law and litigation departments, don't depend on each other for results.

“The main cause of conflict is that you have a bunch of experts highly trained in arguing and staking out an adversary opinion. Unless people learn to wear two hats – lawyer and manager, they tend to carry their combative approach into partnership.”

Last year, Richards was drafted in to help a firm where some of the rainmakers had tried to wrest control from the others. They wanted to demote all the other partners and engineered a coup, but fell one short of a majority.

Richards says: “It was the most uncomfortable, bruised and hurtful situation ever, but nobody talked about it and everybody carried on as if nothing had happened.”

With Richards' advice, the firm embarked on a three-month course of self-diagnosis, interviews, data gathering and analysis. It culminated in every one of the partners attending a four-day retreat at a conference centre where they aired grievances and resolved their differences through workshops.

According to Richards, everything is now “OK” at the firm, partly because the partners made a commitment to resolve their differences.

That law firms can do better when dealing with office conflict is evident from discussions with trainee and junior solicitors, a group which arguably needs to be nurtured most.

The Trainee Solicitors Group (TSG) says two-thirds of calls to its helpline, for trainees experiencing problems during their training contracts, pertain to abuse at work. Most callers say they, or trainees before them, have raised their grievances within their firm but not had the issue resolved.

And if improving quality of life and work is not enough to tempt firms into plying Graham's or Richards' skills, then the spectre of litigation from illness-afflicted trainees might.

Irwin Mitchell solicitor and former TSG chairman, Nick Armstrong says he knows several lawyers in their late twenties who are already experiencing symptoms of stress such as breathing difficulties, dizziness and chest pains.

He warns firms may face lawsuits in the future from young solicitors whose health has been ruined by their work, and points to the Working Time Directive as a source of potential claims.

Armstrong, who has manned the TSG helpline, says he has heard numerous stories of “egomaniac partners, personal vendettas, personality clashes and absolute loonies”. Last year the helpline staff fielded two suicidal calls from trainees who had simply had enough.

The majority of calls is from trainees who claim they are overworked, not receiving support, being forced to act unethically and being “chucked in at the deep end”.

Armstrong says that many partners are reticent in helping trainees and adopt an attitude of: “I had it done to me therefore you have to do it too.”

Given the rapidly changing climate of work, the number of high-profile partner departures from firms and the increasing concern of young lawyers about their lifestyle, perhaps it is time law firms changed tack.

Avoid disaster by looking for warning signs

Law firms can avoid disaster by taking early action and looking for warning signals of trouble ahead. MCM Network consultant Merry Graham outlines some behavioural patterns among staff that can alert the management to problems.

Frequent use of phrases such as “put up with” and “we'll let that go” signal problems are being left unresolved and will rise up again in the future. According to Graham, the general rule is that if workers have more than two items on the “put up with” list then conflict will result.

Over-reacting to minor issues, such as the coffee machine not working, is often a sign of problems elsewhere in the workplace which have not been addressed. This is known as “sideways anger” – unexpressed fury resulting from failure to deal with one problem that often manifests itself elsewhere. For example, a person who feels ignored by his boss may express that anger by kicking the photocopier.

“Polarisation”, or a tendency for people to set themselves into “either/or” camps during discussions.

Illness and poor time-keeping. Consistent lateness could mean the employee is avoiding some conflict at work.

The employee not taking responsibility for his actions and blaming others for problems.

A dearth of new ideas. A general sense of deja vu and of “being here before” among workers is a sign of problems in the workplace. Roughly 30 per cent of the week's work should focus on the future of the business.

A tendency among workers to talk about problems rather than come up with solutions.