Law Ruler April 2024
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The 3 Most Common Conflicts in Law Firms and How to Resolve Them

By Wendy Merrill

Not all conflict is bad. In fact, a good amount of well-choreographed confrontation is necessary for healthy firms. Here are common law firm conflicts you should not ignore.

Avoiding Confrontation Does Not Avoid Conflict

We all know pressure runs high in law firms, and the stress from heavy workloads, business development and billing spreads thin the bandwidth and patience of lawyers and staff alike. Managing deadlines and client demands can exhaust even the most enthusiastic professionals and leave little energy to manage internal challenges or conflicts. This may explain why the “sweep-it-under-the-rug” attitude is so common in law firms. But while avoiding confrontation may seem to keep issues at bay, in reality, avoidance creates fertile ground for festering feelings.

I’ve always found it curious that those best at avoiding internal conflict are often litigators for whom confrontation pays the bills. When I’ve asked litigation attorneys about this paradoxical behavior, the response is always the same: They see the office as a safe space to retreat from courtroom battles. While I appreciate this way of thinking, I want to caution attorneys against the total avoidance of conflict, which can cause more harm than good.

Common Law Firm Conflicts and How to Resolve Them

For a better understanding, let’s look at the most common conflicts that arise in law firms and the steps you can take to resolve them.

1. Partner Disagreements

partner disagreements law firm conflicts

It’s not all wine and roses at the partnership level in many law firms.

Competing interests, disagreement around compensation, little to no leadership training, immense pressure, competing egos, and insecurities are all trustbusters that can create a general unease at the leadership table. Conflicts often feel personal when they should be kept at the professional level. When emotions are involved, things tend to get heated too quickly or become buried under the fear of rocking the boat. Both approaches only serve to jeopardize the profitability and future of the firm.

Here’s how to foster a more harmonious partnership:

  • Create roles, set expectations and apply metrics. If no one knows what is expected of them or is held accountable for their actions, the partners won’t be able to coalesce around what’s needed to run the firm.
  • Communicate better. For professional communicators, so many attorneys are surprisingly lousy at communicating with one another. By applying proven techniques to facilitate healthy and productive dialogues, partner meetings will be much more effective, and you can avoid hurt feelings.
  • Find a neutral moderator. Retain an outside professional to facilitate and moderate planning sessions and conversations that empower partners to share ideas, collaborate more and implement solutions. Many consultants are in this space, so be sure that whomever you engage tailors their approach around your unique situation and dynamics.

2. Underperforming Lawyers

law firm conflicts

Does anyone in your firm ever fall short of their minimum billable requirements?

Don’t be shy — you’re in excellent company. If your firm has lawyers (partners and associates alike) with poor billing hygiene, it’s a major problem you cannot afford to ignore. As common as this challenge is, few firms are willing to have hard conversations that dig into the reasons behind missing billable time.

Here’s how to address billing inconsistencies and shortfalls with underperforming lawyers:

  • First, run reports and review each lawyer’s billable and non-billable time. Do so monthly, if not weekly, and then discuss the data with the biller. Find out what is working and what is not. Ask if they need help or clarification. And make sure they have a solid understanding of what should be billed. This last bit is huge. Believe it or not, there are partners I have worked with who lack clarity on this and need a refresher on when to bill clients.
  • Pay attention to write-offs, discounts and looming accounts receivables. It’s been my experience that many attorneys, from new associates to senior partners, struggle with clients who balk at retainers or rates and believe that fees are negotiable. They are not and should not be.
  • Make sure every lawyer in your firm has a clear understanding of how the firm makes money. Specifically, make sure each lawyer understands the role their billables (and non-billables) play in the firm’s overall profitability. Do not assume this is obvious. It is not, and the success of your firm is at stake.

3. Miscommunication Between Attorneys and Staff

law firm conflicts

Even the best law firms struggle with communication breakdowns.

Disconnects — even seemingly minor ones — threaten the success of the organization and the quality of the client experience. If there is no system to facilitate the exchange of vital information through respectful dialogues, frustration will ensue, followed by distrust and, finally, an unfortunate event such as a resignation, malpractice or worse.

Here’s how to foster consistent, clear and concise communication in your firm:

  • Set expectations. Every member of the team must have a job description and expectations document to provide guidance and accountability. Job descriptions for staff are more commonplace than those for attorneys. If lawyers do not understand what is expected of them as an associate, partner or of counsel, how can they perform at the appropriate level?
  • Train, train, and train some more. Effective communication is a skill that must be taught, and it is rarely found in law school curriculums. All newer lawyers should undergo rigorous training on effectively communicating with one another, staff and clients. Experienced attorneys are not exempt from the need to hone their communication skills, and the path to partnership must include guidance on how leaders should interact with one another and those they endeavor to lead.
  • Invest in training staff on how to manage up. Staff are essential to every firm’s success, and they must be able to effectively communicate — and hold their ground if necessary — with the lawyers they support.

Addressing Conflict Head-On

If your team members’ approach to internal conflict is to bury their heads in the sand, the firm faces a threat to its success, profitability and future sustainability. Not all conflict is bad — a healthy amount of well-choreographed confrontation is necessary. The key to addressing conflict in the right way is to de-personalize conversations and de-escalate emotions to make way for solutions.

Read More on Law Firm Leadership and Growth

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Wendy Merrill Wendy Merrill

Wendy Merrill is a fierce advocate for improving the practice of law. She has worked with thousands of lawyers around the world, providing practical guidance and proven techniques designed to help lawyers and their firms thrive. Wendy is both the proud CEO of StrategyHorse, a consulting firm committed to boosting law firm profitability with proven strategies, and co-founder of The Savvy Advocate, a unique associate training program designed to prepare younger lawyers and their firms for success. She is also an author and prominent speaker on law firm growth strategy, winning the war for legal talent, bridging the generational gap in law firms, and more.

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