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Written by Lisa M. Walker Johnson
Published: 01 November 2015
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two paths in the forest

Making a decision to leave your law firm partnership is likely to be the hardest career decision you will ever make. How do you know when the timing is right, for you and for the firm?

disappointed expectations

The ability of a law firm to achieve its strategic ambitions, especially those measurable in terms of sustained financial performance, frequently depends on the ability of the senior partners to negotiate and define the roles that each will play in setting and following the firm's strategic course. The spectrum of roles and responsibilities that partners assume, range from business issues to purely practice issues with a lot of middle territory in-between.

When partners tell me "I have had enough," they usually talk about "what's wrong" in the area of partnership governance. They describe situations where partners are not living up to their expectations of one another. Sometimes they have personal concerns about the health and state of mind of one of their colleagues. Quite often it is a combination of concerns, developed over a period of time, which cause them to lose hope in their own future in the firm and perhaps, in the future of the firm itself.

vital signs and symptoms

It is hard to diagnose a disease without first recognizing its symptoms. Do any of these comments sound familiar?

Symptoms are usually pretty easy to identify. What is less obvious may be your own reactions to "what's wrong" in the firm. When I ask partners, "How are you dealing with things?" I hear these kinds of responses:

When I ask, "What are you not doing that you want to be doing, they often respond:

three questions

When partners feel they lack the means to achieve what they want, they become discouraged. Certainly, when they are not doing what they want to be doing, things are "going wrong" for them.

The most important questions are:

Is it worth fixing?

There is the old adage, "Success is sweeter when you go through adversity together."

Are there realistic possibilities to fix it?

What is the consequence to me, my partners, the firm and our clients if I do nothing and simply maintain the status quo?

Analyzing these three categories of questions will help you to decide whether, "enough is enough." It is not a personal failing to change course. It is a sign of strength to confront the realities of your situation and pursue new opportunities. It is also a sign of tremendous strength to ask for help – either in fixing "what's wrong" or in evaluating whether "enough is enough."

Trusted friends in the profession, skilled business consultants, even your own partners can often be resources in making a decision about whether to go or to stay.

the "wait and see" alternative

Sometimes it seems easier to let things take their own course, for better or worse: Avoid both seeking the evidence you need to diagnose a problem, and evaluating the viability of resolving it or doing nothing.

Sometimes partners are initially afraid to proceed, even cautiously, because they fear an "explosion." They feel the explosion may come in the guise of previously unexpressed feelings and emotions, difficult conversations with unknown outcomes, unwelcome opinions from disliked colleagues and disruptions in valued professional relationships. The ironic thing is that these things will happen anyway when partners don't address their concerns and decide just to leave quietly.

Which do you suppose is likely to have the most adverse consequences: a managed departure (should it come to that) or blind-siding your partners after it is too late to even try to talk about it, much less"fix it?"

"We need to talk about this."

Every satisfying and significant relationship in our lives involves expressing feelings, sharing ideas and opinions, and wading into the "unknown." When the parties accept certain guidelines and conditions for communication, it is entirely possible to come out the other side unscathed, more confident, and even relieved that they were able to work through an important issue together. When they can't resolve their differences, they can plan for a more amicable and constructive departure with fewer long-term adverse consequences for all concerned.

Lisa Walker Johnson


Walker Clark LLC members have more than a half century of experience helping lawyers and law firms make tough decisions about their futures. Click here to learn more.