Money, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms

The Practice: Splitting Up

You and your partner are going separate ways. It sounded like a good idea — you left the same firm together, or quit the prosecutor’s office at the same time. You got a little corner of another firm’s space, a wood sign with silver letters, a nice desk, and those two chairs in front of it that would make the clients believe they were in the right place. You plugged in a new phone system and off you went.

But your partner isn’t bringing in business, or maybe it’s you. Maybe a small law firm isn’t for you and you’re headed back to Biglaw or in-house. Maybe your partner can’t seem to get in before 10 or your contingency cases are way too contingent.

Lawyers split up; they have issues like any other type of relationship. They fight about money, space, others (read: clients) in their lives, and who knows, maybe they even sleep together. Sometimes the split occurs over time, and sometimes it happens suddenly.

Let’s keep some things in mind….

Assuming the split isn’t a result of death or disbarment, you and your partner are going to continue to practice law, and most likely in the same city. You will meet up again, you may compete for the same clients, you may wind up working together on another case. No matter how strong the resentment, anger, or hate is right now — never focus on now — always consider the future. You do not want your partnership dispute to be the talk of the town. You do not want it to consume you. No one looks good when the first thing that comes to mind about a lawyer is the war you just had with your partner. Your partner may make it a war, but if there was ever a situation where you should take the high road, this is it. Forget that you are a lawyer, that you can litigate, argue, and make people’s lives miserable. Go into resolution mode and stay there.

Do not run to your state Bar association for a map of how to deal with every single silly detail, or with every question you think is relevant. You are not the first partnership to split up — find a lawyer who’s gone through the same thing and learn from them. Do not think that getting the Bar involved will make things easier. Here’s a thought, maybe you find a lawyer that handles contract disputes and maybe has dissolved a partnership? Do not think that filing a Bar complaint is a good way to resolve things. Yes, the Bar has ethics opinions and rules and you should read all of them and follow them, but the people from the Bar don’t care about your stupid partnership — they care about your clients. Getting the Bar involved in your petty disputes is a sure path to a trust account subpoena, and an inquiry into, well, your entire practice. You think you’re in the driver’s seat threatening or actually filing a Bar complaint? Just wait until the letter from the Bar comes addressed to you and your partner.

Speaking of clients, that’s the focus.

I know, you think all the clients belong to you, or will want to stay with you because you are awesome and your partner is a piece of crap, but seriously, are these the only clients you will ever have? Do what’s expected, tell the clients that have worked with you and your partner that you’re splitting up and let them make the decision. So some don’t go with you. Grow up, get over it. Go get better clients. The fact that you made a bad decision on a partner should not wind up putting clients in a position where they feel they are in between two lawyers trying to kill each other. Jerry Maguire? Bob Sugar? Time to watch that movie again.

Here’s another novel thought — sit down and talk about it. If the split is because you despise each other, try to bring in a mediator. In the end, you may wind up with each partner having his own lawyer, but do everything you can to try and resolve things in principal between the partners. Your split likely has something to do with money, and bringing in lawyers just costs money. You’re a lawyer: your job is to resolve issues, not create them. (Unless you need to meet your billable hours quota for the month).

Resolve what you can resolve, and bring in the lawyers only if you have issues that you can’t agree on, or to draw up an agreement that makes the partners comfortable about the future after all issues are resolved.

The goal of a partnership dissolution is, wait for it, to dissolve the partnership. It is not to enter into protracted negotiations, litigation, or a public war. There are costs to ending a relationship, and those costs are not just money. If your goal is to end the relationship for free or an even split of everything, well, good luck with that. You know the term we lawyers use, “go away money?” Spend it to end the partnership if your overriding goal is to just get out. Yes, lose the ego, realize that being right costs money, and get out.


Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at bt@tannebaumweiss.com.

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