Mediation for two partners in conflict

The Challenge

The managing partner and one of the founding partners of a highly successful boutique law firm were having an extremely difficult time working together. They no longer trusted each other, were constantly angry, and had virtually ceased speaking. This not only was affecting the two of them, but was negatively affecting the morale and management of the firm. Finally, it got so tense between the two that one of them announced he was leaving the firm. They had not intended to let their relationship degenerate so significantly, and other attorneys were worried that the partner’s departure would leave a gap in the firm’s legal expertise and could affect its ultimate stability. The firm hired me to help the two partners resolve their differences and work together in the future.

The Process

Because of the depth of their disagreements and the length of time they had been in conflict, I decided that the best way for the partners to discuss and perhaps ultimately resolve their differences would be to follow a traditional mediation process.

 

I brought the partners together and discussed the process, ground rules, and expectations. I asked each partner to give his perspective about what was occurring, while the other partner listened quietly. For both, it was the first time they had had the opportunity to spell out for the other why they were so upset.

I then met separately with each of them to hear about any issues they didn’t feel comfortable discussing in front of the other person, and to help them clarify their positions, interests, and needs. Then I helped them figure out a way to talk to the other partner about those issues.

After the separate sessions, the three of us convened again to continue face-to-face discussions. We met approximately six times over the course of several months.

I had a number of different roles throughout these meetings. First, for the mediation to have a chance to succeed, it was imperative for both partners to feel comfortable talking honestly and openly to me and to each other, which meant that the three of us came to an agreement that anything said in our meetings stayed confidential. Second, I facilitated the conversation so that the partners could truly communicate, seeing and highlighting areas of agreement or common ground between them. Third, I kept the discussion moving forward, rather than focusing on past issues, and I handled conflicts as they arose. Finally, I helped them generate and articulate realistic options.

The Result

Going into any mediation, it is important for everyone to understand that the sole goal is for the people involved to have the best opportunity possible to resolve their differences. In this situation, the partners needed to be open to the idea that the best resolution for all might be for the founding partner to leave.

As it turned out, the founding partner decided to stay, and the two agreed that in the future they would address disagreements with one another more rapidly, rather than allow them to fester.

In addition, the other partners decided that this would be a good opportunity to examine the firm as a whole to see if the issues that had evolved between these two people were unique to them or symptomatic of broader problems at the firm. After much discussion with me and a colleague, the partners decided to change the way the firm made certain management decisions.