What Does "Gray Divorce" Have to Do With Law Firm Partners?

Kathy Fortin

November 1, 2019

 A member in my Writers’ Group has been writing a book about relationships and marriage. The focus of her message is prevention. The term “Gray Divorce” frequently comes up in her chapters. This popular term describes those couples who call it quits after thirty, forty, or even more years of marriage. The culprit is chronic failures in communicating. So, how does this lead me to law firms?

Whether in marriage, with friendships, or between law firm partners, effective communication can bind the couple, friends, or lawyers. Poor or no communication, on the other hand, can eventually tear them apart. In my consulting work, communication within small law firms is something we often focus on. We often discover that the partners rarely meet. We recommend regularly scheduled partner meetings to not only discuss firm management but partner issues.

Often, there might be one partner who acts as the Managing Partner and the other (s) are happy they do not have to be bothered. However, the weakness here is that partners should be talking to their partners about their own issues. In my friend’s book, she cites Tea Time as a daily way for a couple to connect on what is happening with each other, to lend an ear, to provide support, and to share stresses and concerns. Her research shows the more Tea Time spent, the less Gray Divorce. Tea Time allows a couple to share what is on their minds and work through issues. The time together also helps the couple build a rapport… and their partnership.

Those couples who end in Gray Divorce will cite chronic resentments, growing apart, and lack of communication. These problems which might have been easy to ignore early on begin to smolder, year and after year, until eventually one of them throws their hands up and announces, “That’s it!” Often, the other is shocked and does not understand what has happened. This same scenario can happen with law firm partners.

Issues that often do not get addressed between partners include:

  • Building collegiality through out of office social events,
  • Off-site retreats to develop strategic goals and the firm direction,
  • Management needs,
  • Hiring and training of associates,
  • Firm expenses and budgeting,
  • Revenue and other financial goals,  
  • Partner compensation and benefits, and
  • The Partnership Agreement.

All of these issue require discussion and agreement at the partnership level. To ignore their importance to a partnership and the firm can result in problems down the road.

Effectively communicating on partner issues may include:

  • Discussing and finalizing terms of a Partnership Agreement at the beginning of the arrangement or soon thereafter, and review as circumstances may require,
  • Holding annual Strategic Planning sessions which conclude with an adopted plan in writing which sets agreed upon goals and objectives,
  • Committing to regular partnership meetings, at least monthly, preferable twice a month,
  • Working on firm expenses and setting revenue goals by the start of each new year, and
  • Reviewing the compensation system at least every second year.

Because compensation systems can become a major source of partner conflict, my next Blog post will offer thoughts on how to stay ahead of any problem.

Build in “Partner Time” as soon as you can and as often as you can to guard against missteps that can become disastrous.