It seems as if everyone is breaking up these days. Indeed, I was shocked yesterday to learn that Heidi Klum and Seal have separated. I felt blindsided when I heard that Johnny Depp and girlfriend Venessa Paradis were calling it quits after 14 years together. And don’t get me started on Aretha.
In my practice, I have represented many small law firms going through the same fate as my girl Heidi. At some point, loving partners decide they hate each other. One splits off into his own firm and the group goes through a messy “custody” battle for clients, partners, associates, and staff. Are small-firms and Hollywood it-couples all destined for messy break-ups? Is there something that can be done during the formation of the partnership, or at some point during its healthy existence, to prevent such endings?
To find out, I asked two experts on relationships: (i) my grandma, who has been happily married for more than 60 years, and (ii) my divorce lawyer friend, who, through observing the most horrific divorces, has identified key preventative measures. Here are the top five tips for maintaing a healthy partnership — in law and in life — or at least ending one gracefully….
(1) Make sure you genuinely like and respect your partner(s)
Both Grams and my friend agreed that mutual respect and affection are key building blocks for a successful relationship. As time passes and difficulties (financial, etc.) put pressure on the relationship, couples naturally find themselves questioning their feelings for each other. Without good times to look back on, it is nearly impossible to maintain the relationship. This is equally true for a healthy small-firm partnership. You wouldn’t marry someone who you did not like, so why would you start a firm with someone you did not like? Yet, many small-firm attorneys do not make this connection. They mistakenly believe that if their partners are able to bring in clients, personal feelings can be put aside. This is not so. After all, it didn’t work out so well for Anna Nicole, now did it?
(2) Do not compete with your partner
Jealousy is often a main factor in the destruction of a relationship. As my grandma said, “If your grandpa had improved upon my apple pie recipe I would have left his a**.” Grams is very serious about her pie. Her message, however, goes beyond pie. A partnership works best when partners complement each other rather than directly compete. In small-firm world, this means partners should consider how their practice areas and clients relate to those of their partners. Perhaps it is worthwhile to consider partnering with a lawyer who specializes in a different area of the law or, at the very least, has expertise in a different aspect of the partners’ shared field.
(3) Be wary of May-December romances
While some of my friend’s most lucrative matters involve an old dude and a young lady, he recognizes that such a pairing represents the most difficult to sustain. In his words, “In a few years that old guy becomes really old and the hot young tennis instructor becomes nearly impossible to resist.” So too with small firms. I am aware of many firms that began with a senior willpartner and his mentee starting their own shop. After a few years, the mentee surpasses the mentor and tensions run high. That is not to say that May-December small firms are a bad idea per se. To the contrary, they can be very successful. I simply suggest that, like the young girl who should take a minute visualizing the salt-and-pepper sugar daddy in the buff ten years from now, small-firm attorneys contemplating a May-December firm should think about how the pair will work together in the future.
(4) Do not put your children in the middle
My friend told me a story of a particularly messy divorce. As the marriage began to distintegrate and the parents’ hatred for each other took over, they started to use the children to punish each other. As distasteful as this sounds, it is rather common in the divorce world. And, it is done in the small-firm world too. When things start to go sour among small-firm partners, often times the main partners will make the junior partners and associates choose their allegience. Don’t do it.
(5) Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
My friend is all about the pre-nup. Even Grams had her own version of a pre-nup. “I told your grandfather that if we got divorced, I would punish him for the rest of his life.” Yes, my grandma is hard-core. As my grandma and friend explain, when getting into a relationship (or starting a small-firm), hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It is important either to have binding agreement as to what will happen in case of divorce or, at least, to have a conversation and identify specific steps that should be taken. I would not, however, suggest you use Grammies “pre-nup.”
Getting married or starting a small-firm is a big decision. Think it through beforehand, work on the relationship throughout its lifetime, and be reasonable if things fall apart. Do not be the Paul McCartney and Heather Mills of small-firm break ups.
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.