By Simon Taylor (MA Oxon and MCIArb) and Patricia Wheatley Burt (FCIPD)

When things are going well, with profits up and the firm going places, it is very easy to overlook, or even accept, individual idiosyncrasies and conflicting agendas within a partnership. When the cycle turns, however, such issues can too easily turn into crises. The potential conflict was always there; what has changed is the acceptance of the partners to this situation.

Of all the issues that people tend to avoid, managing conflict ranks at the top of the list, along with public speaking and swimming with sharks.

Many people see conflict as indicative of a problem. Disagreement feels uncomfortable and threatening. When there’s no open conflict, a partnership can carry on as though things are all right even though individual partners know they aren’t.

It is very rare for open warfare to break out without warning. Too frequently, the warning signs are there, but are ignored. The soft option of brushing disagreements under the carpet, and hoping they remain there, is too tempting.

It is, however, vital for a partnership to acknowledge the potential conflict. It is impossible to reach resolution without such acknowledgement, and without resolution, conflict merely becomes an opportunity to recycle old arguments, disagreements and opinions. Nothing moves forward, feelings get stirred up and reinforced.

Managing conflict can actually be exciting, rewarding and stimulating for some. It can be a chance to get to the heart of a problem, rather than only focusing on the superficial or obvious issues. Most conflicts have core causes based on values, aspirations and standards between the partners. Once these are addressed, conflict becomes an option to choose rather than run away from. The areas for disagreement are many and varied and can include:

  • defining business strategy: whether to have one at all and then how to blend all the different interests of the partners into a coherent plan;
  • performance management issues against agreed criteria, resulting in stress, unprofessional behaviour (shouting, slanging matches) and generally unproductive aggression;
  • handling breaches of standards and ethics which occur in an effort to maintain clients, get the work done, and corners can be cut;
  • issues on conduct: such as when the office party gets out of hand and how to discipline and manage the fall out; or
  • personality clashes between more junior staff resulting in partners feeling that ‘the tail is wagging the dog’.

There are a number of ways of dealing with conflicts:

  1. Avoiding – withdraw from the conflict situation, leaving it to chance.
  2. Harmonizing – generally cover up the differences and claim that things are fine.
  3. Bargaining – negotiate to arrive at a compromise, bargaining for gains by both parties
  4. Forcing – push a party to accept the decision made by a leader or majority.
  5. Problem solving – confront differences and resolve them on a collaborative basis which could include mediation.
  6. Exiting – one or more individuals leave the practice either by choice or by force.
  7. Only problem solving (and mediation) will actively address the underlying issues. A strong Managing Partner may feel option 4 above is the way to go; option 3 likewise has its supporters. Neither of these options, however, will resolve the causes of the conflict. Exiting has been a route seen by a number of firms which can be cleansing in some instances, or hugely destructive.
    Unfortunately, by the time conflict emerges into the open, personalities tend to get in the way of problem solving strategies. An outside facilitator or mediator may therefore be necessary.
    That, however, may itself cause problems. Will both sides accept the same outside facilitator? It is not unusual for matters to have progressed to such an extent that if party A accepts the facilitator, party B automatically will not. An experienced facilitator or mediator is therefore vital to manage the process through.
    Ultimately, a law firm is a business which requires active management and this must be accepted by both sides to any conflict. The facilitator therefore needs to work with the partnership in total, to gauge the views of the partnership as a whole, and encourage the parties to the conflict to come to the “correct” decision for the firm.
    Firms which fail to resolve the underlying causes of conflict will rarely prosper. A firm who’s management actively seek to address conflict within its partnership will gain enormously in experience and respect and have much better prospects in this competitive marketplace.
    Patricia Wheatley Burt, Jacky Lewis and Simon Taylor form the coaching and mediating team in Trafalgar. For more information and informal enquiries please email: – or call Patricia Wheatley Burt on 020 7565 7547 .