Case Study: Partnership in Peril

Friends since law school, Ben and Jonathan achieved individual success before founding their own firm. Ben had been an associate in one of the large, downtown law offices where he developed an expertise in bankruptcy law, while Jonathan worked at another large firm focusing on patent law. It was six years ago when, each married and with growing families, Ben and Jonathan brought their expertise together and launched their company.

After an enthusiastic beginning, their partnership, now seven years old, is threatened by simmering bitterness.

Ben’s Story

Jonathan isn’t devoting enough time to make this business work. He typically strolls in the office at 9:30 and most summer nights he’s running out the door at 5:00. We used to meet at least twice a week over lunch when we first began the company. We’d talk over our dreams for the firm and would hash out business development strategies. Now he’s off on lunch meetings nearly every day, which means even more time out of the office. It makes my blood boil that he’s slacking off and I’m carrying this business myself.

Jonathan’s Story

The whole reason we launched this partnership is so that we’d be our own bosses. Right now, I feel like I’m working for Ben. He’s only happy if I’m at my desk every second of every day, always poised for his next demand. He’s always got a pile of grunt work for me to do. I’ve got a life outside of work and I’m not going to be bullied by him.

Investigation

In a joint meeting with Ben and Jonathan we uncovered each of their perspectives in better detail. Ben shared how he feels overwhelmed with the day-to-day tasks of running the business. He misses the spirit of collaboration that marked the first years of their business partnership. As the sole income earner for his family Ben’s focused on maximizing profits for the business. For his part, Jonathan explained that time spent with his children is important. His wife works so Jonathan drops off their children at school and daycare before coming to the office. In the summer, he coaches his son’s Little League team. One aspect of leading the firm that Jonathan particularly likes is forging new client relationships. His frequent lunch meetings have been his way of networking and this outreach has been a primary source for new clients.

Resolution

It quickly became clear that care for their families was the key motivator for both Ben and Jonathan in starting their business. For Ben, it’s through financial security and sustainability that he primarily contributes to his family. For Jonathan, a flexible schedule is essential. Uncovering that common value of care for family helped the two partners to better understand each other’s decisions.

Hearing the complementary contributions each make to the business helped them to better appreciate the partnership. Once Ben understood the purpose behind Jonathan’s frequent lunchtime meetings he supported the strategy.

Instead of expecting Jonathan to take on office tasks, it would be a better use of both Jonathan and Ben’s time if they hired an office manager to handle their administrative needs. With these demands no longer a drain on Ben’s time and energy, Ben would be available to mentor and supervise the team of paralegals in their firm. Developing their talents and skills is a fulfilling role for Ben and advances his goal of sustainability of the firm.

Jonathan, reminded of the pleasure and value of the conversations he and Ben used to share, saw again the purpose of regular partner meetings as an essential element for the health of their company. The two partners now have a standing lunch meeting twice a week where they alternate discussions on day-to-day management and long-term strategy for their business.

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