OSB Professional Liability Fund

Firm Management: When It's Time for Tough Conversations

December 6, 2019
by Sheila Blackford

Despite popular beliefs about lawyers, a great majority of them are conflict avoidant and risk averse. Managing a firm can be difficult when it’s time to have tough conversations.

Here are a couple of common scenarios.

Lawyer One has enjoyed a positive relationship with the legal assistant. Everything is going along fine until the lawyer stumbles upon evidence that the legal assistant has dropped the ball and made assurances that work was completed when it was far from complete. Initially the lawyer feels angry and betrayed after realizing that a trusted legal assistant was dishonest and unreliable.

What to do?

Recognize that it is disappointing to find out that trust has been misplaced, which can lead to unpleasant consequences. Realize that your legal assistant is embarrassed and upset to have let you down.

What not to do?

Avoid any communication with the legal assistant. Discuss anything but the problem. Hope your legal assistant will just resign.

Lawyer Two has been in a partnership with another lawyer. They tell themselves that their differences are complementary. Unfortunately, Lawyer Two is frustrated by not having an honest discussion about what they want their law firm to look like. Lawyer Two’s partner has begun to feel overwhelmed.

What to do?

Lawyer Two should bring a facilitator into the firm to help them get a clear picture that each lawyer desires different things from the law firm partnership and holds expectations about what they want. A good facilitator can help the lawyers communicate honestly about what is going on and to listen with respectful attention to each other.

What not to do?

Avoid letting your unhappiness escalate, because you may cause an inadvertent breakup of the partnership.

Take a lesson from peak performing athletes. They rehearse their game by visualizing themselves taking a smooth but powerful swing at the ball. The power of visualization can have a great impact on the athlete’s game.

I remember hearing about a prisoner of war who whiled away the lonesome mind-numbing time in his prison cell by practicing his golf swing for hours daily. When he finally was released, he craved the simple pleasures he missed in his former life like playing golf. When he finally got his chance to go to a golf course, his mastery of golf was amazing. If you didn’t know his story, you would be convinced he was a visiting golf pro. In truth, he had become a master golfer as a result of spending hours in his prison cell perfecting his game.

Both lawyers in the scenarios above can experience something equally amazing by visualizing themselves communicating with powerful confidence. Lawyer One can experience over and over saying the right thing honestly and with compassion for the legal assistant, who must be feeling badly about failing to handle the important details and being dishonest in reporting the job has been done properly.

Lawyer Two can visualize having an honest discussion about needs and expectations so that they can determine whether they should continue in their partnership or begin the process of splitting up the partnership.

At the end of the day, one can take steps to gain the confidence and clarity to have those difficult conversations. It takes effort, but it is effort well spent. And best of all, experiencing success in communicating in a tough situation will have a positive impact going forward. 

There will always be tough situations, but we can gain the confidence in our ability to communicate.