Pillow Talk and Partners
13 February 1996
The complications which can arise when lawyers in the same office have affairs has caused management problems for many managing partners over the years.
It is such a delicate subject that most firms do not have clear policies on how to deal with the situation when it actually occurs.
The way in which practices have developed over the past 30 years may shed some light on why relationships have become such an issue.
Up until the mid-1970s, practices were limited in size by the 20-partner rule. The issue of relationships was therefore easier to contain.
Nevertheless, a kind of silent code existed which generally frowned on in-house relationships, particularly where one party was already, or was about to become, a partner. In such circumstances it was believed there was a potential conflict between partner confidentiality and pillow talk.
At that time, there were also far fewer women entering the profession. The typical relationship would, therefore, have been between a male practitioner and a female secretary.
In practice, what would happen is that the female secretary would leave the firm once the engagement had been announced. Presumably, any confidentiality issues would not have arisen before that time on the assumption that pillow talk had not yet taken place.
By contrast, the number of lawyers in the firms of the 1990s has grown enormously. They can often spend long hours at the office and there are as many women entering the profession as men. It follows that the chances of having a relationship at work must also have increased.
People also tend to have more relationships now before settling down and this sociological fact means that some of these relationships are more likely to take place at work.
Yet many firms still appear to adopt the old unwritten code of disapproving of relationships between employees, leaving individual practitioners to walk the dangerous tight-rope of potentially breaching the rules and risking their future prospects with the firm.
But what are the rules? Should it be the woman in the relationship that leaves? Or if a junior male practitioner is involved with a female partner should it be the man that leaves? Is there a time when both parties should leave? What is the situation if those involved decide to settle down but do not marry? When does pillow talk start and a potential conflict of confidentiality arise?
Legally, a firm could not enforce such rules. Individual practitioners do, nevertheless, feel the pressure and respond to it in many ways. For example, some hide their relationship until their promotion prospects are secured.
Of course, the office grape-vine ensures that everyone in the firm knows what is going on and this becomes worse the more the parties try to keep their secret.
Operating in this way serves no one, least of all the firm. Fellow colleagues may feel left out of their workmates' secret and wonder what else they have not disclosed. In effect, it creates a climate of dishonesty and mistrust which practices can ill afford.
Other practitioners bend over backwards to distance themselves from the relationship. I have heard of one male partner giving his 'girlfriend' a particularly severe assessment to show his objectivity towards the process.
In this case, the lawyer apparently felt the need to overcompensate when other partners were much more supportive and complimentary of her performance.
Perhaps the time has come for firms to recognise that relationships have become an inevitable fact of modern professional life.
It is therefore appropriate for firms to adopt clear guidelines and policies which can enable staff to deal effectively with this issue when it arises.
But how can firms begin to design policies and guidelines when they do not speak openly about the potential problems which relationships at work give rise to. Further, the secrecy involved in denying relationships until prospects are secured runs counter to the whole notion of team development and open communication.
Clear guidelines would also help to guard against relationships which develop in situations where one of the parties (typically a more senior male partner, although this may change) is in a position of power and the other party is likely to be unfairly treated.
However, I have also come across the opposite scenario, the junior secretary who 'targeted' the best paid partner in the firm. In that case he was the one who needed protection.