As detailed on this website and other legal news outlets, law firms of all types and sizes often have internal disputes that put reality television drama to shame. Sometimes, partners defect from shops over financial or personal issues, and this can leave egos bruised and people stuck holding the bag for the departing attorneys. Sometimes law firms divorce altogether, like with the famous Cellino & Barnes breakup, which was so dramatic (and perhaps a little comedic), that is spawned an off-Broadway play. Although it might sound easier said than done, associates should try not to take sides during partner disputes at law firms so they can have the most options available to them later in their careers.
I learned this important lesson early in my legal career when I was working as a litigation associate in Biglaw. Our firm was experiencing significant financial pressure, and the partners in our office had different opinions about the direction of our office and the firm. One faction wanted to downsize headcount and supposedly move the office to a smaller, more suburban location. Another faction wanted the office to stay in an urban location and did not support reducing headcount. I tried my best to stay out of the fray and avoid the trash talking between the two sides. Being neutral did not really impact my fate at that firm, but it was good to get a firsthand lesson about the politics that sometimes abounds at law firms.
Later in my career, I worked at a firm at which all of the partners had a major dispute with one of the firm’s partners. As could be expected when lawyers have disputes, the matter eventually entered litigation, and it was difficult for people around the office to voice any kind of support for the solitary partner who was on the other side of the remaining partners’ ire. Even after I left that firm, it was difficult to remain neutral, since each time I encountered a partner from the one faction, they would invariably trash talk the partner in the other faction.
However, I knew it would be best to stay neutral and not pick sides in the dispute. Whenever anyone brought up the dispute, I tried to be as polite as possible, but I did not voice an opinion one way or the other about which faction was correct in the dispute. All of the firm’s partners were pretty well known in the legal community, and the partners could have an impact on future career opportunities and business development chances. By maintaining neutrality, I was able to avoid burning bridges and keep all of my connections in place to have the best chance at career advancement and generating business in my future endeavors.
At a further point in my career, I worked at a larger law firm that was having significant financial issues (these were discussed in detail in articles on this website). Some of the partners in my office decided that it would be best to leave the firm and form their own shop with pretty much everyone at the office that wanted to come along. After reading the writing on the wall, I decided to join the splinter law firm since it seemed like they had the best chance at thriving. This ended up being a solid decision since the other firm went out of business less than a year after partners splintered off.
In any event, not everyone wanted to join the new firm or were not invited to join the new shop. This made things a little uncomfortable around the office because, for a period, we all worked in the office for the old law firm while we waited to leave to join the new law firm. Many of the partners who were staying with the old law firm seemed bitter about the divorce that was happening in our office, and I don’t blame them. When they discussed the situation with me, I just nodded my head and smiled politely without taking a position one way or the other about whether it was wise to begin the new firm. This helped me preserve the best connections possible with people who were staying at the old firm even as I was out the door to work at the new shop.
Sometimes, it is really difficult, if not impossible, to stay out of the fray of partner disputes at a law firm. In certain instances, partners may take an us-versus-them mentality in disputes and force associates to take sides. However, associates should try as much as possible to stay neutral during partner disputes in order to preserve career opportunities and goodwill with the most people possible.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at [email protected].