Why partners should not be friends

by Jaap Bosman

On the 24th of April 1916, the now legendary Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton set off from Elephant Island in the James Caird, the lifeboat in best repair, patched up and partially decked over by what meager resources were available, on a rescue mission to South Georgia. On board where six men, while 22 others would stay behind to await being rescued. The sea journey was extremely perilous as the temperatures were freezing cold and the seas around Cape Horn are known for extreme weathers. It would take the exhausted frozen men two weeks of rowing to reach land.

When carefully selecting who would be his crew on this dangerous but vital rescue mission and who would wait behind on Elephant Island, Shackleton selected among two others, Thomas Crean and Henry McNish. These two men were troublemakers and Shackleton did not like them, but they were men with the best skills and the most endurance. When it became a matter of life or death, Shackleton decided to rely on two men who were certainly not his friends. A good decision, as we all know eventually every single member of the expedition made it back to England alive.

I was reminded of this story when I was having a conversation with a managing partner not so long ago. As most of you will know, for me ‘trust’ is extremely important in a partner group. I regularly ask partner groups if they would trust any of their fellow partners to go to their client without them being present. Typically, I can literally see a shiver go through the partners when I pose that question. Some are convinced that some other partners are of mediocre legal quality and/or are socially awkward. Some others might fear that actually their client might like some of their fellow partners better and they would risk losing that client to that other partner. Whatever the motivation, the answer is almost invariably: “no, I would not trust all of my fellow partners to go to my client, without me being present”. Only a handful of exceptionally great and successful law firms have high levels of unconditional trust between partners.

Lack of trust between partners is a problem

A fundamental lack of professional trust between partners is typically the consequence of a long history of opportunistic partner promotions. It is still surprisingly rare to objectively evaluate potential new equity partners. Some partner promotions are driven by fear that an associate that is crucial to a certain practice, will leave. Sometimes there is a trade-off: If you support our candidate, we will support yours. Sometimes firms need new partners to help bear the costs of a new and expensive office. Sometimes we appoint a new partner to fill a gap after another partner has left. Whatever the reason, a careful evaluation against objective criteria is not one of them. The inevitable consequence of opportunism is that over time the level of trust among partners will diminish.

It will be obvious that lack of -professional- trust is not an optimal situation. As we can clearly witness at this time of year, lack of trust will make partners fight over profit distribution. Lack of trust will hinder joint client development. Lack of trust might even create disputes on what legal templates to use. We have even seen situations where lack of trust made it impossible to put two partners in one practice group (even though their practices were basically comparable). Lack of trust between partners will lead to all sorts of irrational bad behavior and will inevitably lead to loss of business opportunities to the firm.

This was the topic of my meeting with the managing partner. We discussed how we could improve trust among the partners of his firm. At some point he asked me if partners should be friends? My answer was unambiguous and clear: “there is no need for partners to be friends in order to create trust”. On the contrary, I would be inclined to advise against partners developing friendships that go beyond being good colleagues. I know this might come as a surprise, so let me explain.

Friendships stand in the way of trust

Friendship will most certainly blur your judgement. When we are friends, it will become hard to tell the truth as we will fear that uncomfortable conversations will harm our friendship. Friends are supposed to help and support each other, not to criticize or penalize. In my practice I have come across situations were two friends, one the former managing partner and the other his immediate successor became embroiled because the former MP took it as personal criticism when his friend the new MP decided to do things in a different way. This personal argument weighed heavily on both men.

Situations between two persons who are friends can become even more complicated when also the spouses get involved. I know of a situation of two lawyers who had become such good friends that they even had dinner parties and went to social events with their spouses. Also, the spouses got along really well. When at some point one of the two became the practice head and came in a situation where the firm decided to throw the other one out, you can image the pressure this lawyer got at home from his spouse for allowing this to happen.

Compromising on quality erodes quality and trust

Friendships can lead to other partners feeling locked out. Friendships between partners will also make other partners suspicious of favoritism. In general friendship between certain partners will likely erode trust within the partner group. Back to Shackleton. His example shows that friendship is not a requirement for trust. You don’t even have to like a person in order to trust this person. Shackleton choose among his rescue crew two men whom he did not like and who caused him trouble. He trusted them nevertheless with his life and those of the other men because he respected their skills and their character. The same holds true for lawyers: when things really matter, you only trust the best. So, in a partnership don’t breed friendship, breed quality. Stop making compromises as it comes to the quality of the partner group.

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