I’m ending my posts of the year with a difficult subject…individuals within a Partnership who consistently seem to be in opposition with the rest of the Partnership.  It’s one of those areas of challenge that Partnerships are very good at ignoring, but ultimately to their peril.

That vast majority of Partnerships function quite well.  This doesn’t mean that all Partners agree on everything.  While many lawyers share similar personality traits, lawyers are still individuals.  They can think, feel and vote differently from their Partners.   But I want to draw a distinction between Partners who participate in discussions in a respectful, contributing way, and Partners who constantly disagree with any proposals of change.  Opposing perspectives are not a bad thing if the firm can still find a way to move forward.  I’m focused here on Partners who – either overtly or covertly – consistently stop the firm from progressing, or from progressing at an appropriate rate.

Overt Contrarians:

Overt contrarians are free and articulate with their dissenting opinions. They let it be widely known what they disagree with.  Their resistance may be due a legitimate concern about the methodology of a proposed change, which then leaves room for negotiation.  But some people simply don’t like change.  They don’t understand why we need to change. They want change to stop until they’ve retired, then the firm can do what it wants (suggesting that the real motive for dissension is not the firm’s best interests but rather, the individual’s).  Alternatively, some Partners don’t mind change; they just want to be the one to define what that change looks like.  They believe they are the expert on that change, and that even if they are the only Partner in the firm arguing for their particular change, it should be done their way.  Otherwise, they’ll aim to block it.

How can they do this?  Many Partnerships have a culture that requires unanimity on all decisions.  In this environment, the will of a single partner can stonewall plans for change, or seek to change the methodology of change to their own version as a compromise. I caution firms against allowing a single Partner to dictate policy in this way.  It gives too much power to a single Partner and enables a dysfunctional decision-making culture.

Further, if an overt contrarian constantly disagrees with everything that the Partners want to do, then there is a bigger issue to be dealt with. Partnerships should share values, a common vision for their future, and be able to agree on a pathway to achieve that vision.   That’s the point of a Partnership: like-minded individuals practicing together and obtaining greater strength as a unified team than as opposing individuals.  In such an environment, occasional disagreement is acceptable.  If a contrarian consistently blocks change because their belief systems about the business are fundamentally different from that of their Partners, it probably means that they are in the wrong place.

Covert Contrarians:

Covert contrarians are more silent and devious in their opposition.  Many law firm Partnerships have one or more Partners who may appear to be supportive (or at least accepting), but ultimately, tend to sabotage things behind the scenes. Sometimes this is because they genuinely have a difference of opinion from the other partners on what’s right for the firm and they just can’t bring themselves to comply.   But rather than say that outright, they sabotage a program by being late or sloppy with their action items.  From the outside it may appear that they are simply forgetful, or too busy to comply in the required time frame.  Or, the Partnership will understand that the individual is being non-compliant, but they let it go because that person is frequently non-compliant with the needs and decisions of the Partnership as a whole. The contrarian might not even realize they are sabotaging the rest of firm (or they might).  Regardless, that’s precisely what they are doing.  Their actions (or inaction) are also demonstrating a lack of respect for their Partners, which is also troublesome.

Sometimes a Partner is covertly contrarian because it somehow feeds their ego by exerting a degree of control.  Managing Partners and Executive Committees have no real power…they can simply request that Partners follow their lead.  Working in opposition to a firm process, and thus against the wishes of firm leadership, can feel weighty to a Partner who otherwise feels they have little power.

Whether a contrarian is overt or covert, these Partners can weigh a firm down and hinder its progress.  They make every little gain that much more painful and exhausting to achieve.  They can cause Partnerships to go in circles instead of moving forward.  In this way, the actions of a contrarian can cause them to have far more power than if they act in ways more aligned with their Partners.  And they know it, so there’s very little motivation to change.

Contrarians can be aggressive or passive.  It’s easier to spot an aggressive one but the quiet, subversive type can be equally damaging.  Regardless of how they achieve it, contrarians love power – even negative power – and often dislike change.  They may argue that they aren’t contrarian by pointing to various decisions with which they were on-side.  These tend to be more conservative decisions that they immediately agreed with, issues where the status quo is protected, or where their futures weren’t threatened in any way.

Many Partnerships don’t have either the structure or perhaps the courage to police contrarians, and for good reason.  Contrarians are often senior partners and sometimes, very lucrative partners.  If they decide to stop producing or leave the firm, it could have significant financial consequences.  Contrarians may have spent years building alliances with other senior partners and may threaten to leave with them if they don’t get their way.   A contrarian could have a difficult personality such that even the smallest reprimand results in drama and discord. When you contemplate calling them on larger issues, you can only imagine how intense the push-back might be.  Meanwhile the firm may be existing quite nicely despite the actions of the contrarians, so most partners would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.

The problem is that exceptions define a culture.  Issues don’t go way: they get buried where they slowly fester.  Attempts to hold others in the Partnership accountable for anything will eventually fail because regardless of what your policy manual says, your culture will be defined by your actions.  And if your actions allow a contrarian to ultimately make the decisions, the real culture of the firm will be one where a single dissenting party can side-track progress; where a bully can get their way by being difficult; where business savvy and innovation are never supported.  These firms typically experience periods of high Associate churn, low staff morale and Partnership flares where the future of the firm is truly at question.  This is no way to run a business.

The best way to deal with contrarians is to not let them arise in the first place.

  • Ensure your partnership agreement is very clear on the supportive behaviours required of all members.
  • Ensure your firm values clearly state the types of behaviour expected of everyone in the firm.
  • Immediately call to task anyone who does not meet the standards and requirements of those two documents. This doesn’t have to be a public flogging, but it must be apparent that the firm has a no tolerance policy for these types of behaviours.
  • Engage those lawyers who could easily fall into the category of contrarian on planning committees. Turn their resistance into something positive by making them the counterpoint perspectives for creation of stronger projects and plans. Firms fear this will make a committee more painful but actually, it will result in a better product and the potential contrarian will have buy-in to the project and therefore, not serve as its anchor.  This lawyer will also experience power from a positive rather than a negative perspective, showing that they don’t have to sabotage to be powerful.

If that boat has sailed and you have an active contrarian in your midst, you need to deal with it in the most appropriate way to the situation but you must deal with it.   It’s the elephant in the room and everyone knows it’s there.  By avoiding it, you’re endorsing it. Even worse, if you let contrarians get away with their actions then you’re rewarding that behaviour.

While dealing with each contrarian situation is different, start by clarifying the appropriate behavior that was committed to.  This can come from Partnership agreements, value statements, or any other document that outlines expected behaviour.  Next, two Partners should have a private conversation with the contrarian. Explain the expected behaviour and what you have witnessed from the Partner.  Explain how their behavior works against the best interests of the firm.   Ask them to re-align their behaviours with what would be best for the firm.  They will want to explain themselves and argue for why they behave the way they do.  Listen….hearing doesn’t mean you agree with them.  It just means you’re hearing them.  Then re-iterate the behaviours that are needed and ask for their compliance.   If the contrarian still refuses to operate in ways that are aligned with firm expectations, business goals and the firm’s stability, then you will have to look at other options.  These can include penalties (such as through compensation), up to and including asking them to leave the Partnership (or voting them out).

Contrarians exist because they are allowed to, and perhaps even raised by an allowing culture.  No one is suggesting that every Partner has to agree with every other Partner.  But firms shouldn’t enable a consistently disruptive and obstinate Partner to dictate business process, which is precisely what they are allowed to do when their contrarian behaviour halts the firm’s progress.

Again, this is a bare bones version of how to handle the situation and each instance will be different and require a tailored approach.  But bottom line is: deal with it.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com