Mediating Law Partnership Disputes Concerning Compensation—
It’s A Lot About Attitude

By Lee L. Blackman

Few things can derail the working relationship among law partners (including LLC members) more than disputes over distributions (partner compensation). These disputes often involve substantially more than a mechanical application of contract provisions.

Compensation is a symbol of status, contribution, and value in and to the partnership/enterprise. These disputes can be intensely personal. Their resolution, or non-resolution, will likely have profound implications for working relationships among partners, associates, and staff. So the process of resolving these disputes requires special sensitivity to personal relationships. And the discussions must be covered by “cone of silence” confidentiality protections.

Many mediators will approach the resolution of these disputes with a focus on the parties’ relationship before the dispute arose.  What brought the lawyers together in the first place?  What personal bonds, mutual interests, and elements of compatibility led them to come together in a common enterprise?  Exploring these questions can surface feelings and attitudes that underlie the compensation dispute and help the parties discover issues that need to be dealt with to resolve the money dispute in a way that restores the respect the lawyers had for each other at the outset of their relationship.

Since a law partner relationship is truly a situation where the enterprise is more than the sum of its parts, rediscovering the faith and confidence the partners have had in each other and their common enterprise will spell the difference between merely providing a resolution to the current dispute and both resolving it and renewing the commitment to the common venture.

As partners approach the effort to resolve compensation disputes, attitudes will be a key player.  Think about your attitude toward money: is it just money or is it a symbol of status, a measure of fairness, a sign of value or respect?  Think about your attitude toward your partners: is the relationship simply a matter of convenience and tolerance, a sense of shared experience, or a connection of respect and commitment?  Think about your attitude to the partnership: is it just a box of paper, do you want it to endure, do you want it to command respect and have its own stature? 

The answers to these questions will go a long way to deciding whether there is more to the parties’ dispute than the argument over allocating revenue and, if so, how (or whether) that argument can be resolved in a way that is positive for the common enterprise.  Prepare for the mediation with a focus on the personal aspects.  And adopt a positive attitude.  And consider the assistance of a mediator with a background in law practice management disputes.

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