Why Partners Really Need To Be Partners

Don and I have a combined 30 years of working in and with professional services firms. In fact, professional services has become one of Tanner Friedman’s most solid areas of client service. One of the great ironies we have observed over the years is that firms of all kinds (law firms, PR firms, financial firms – you name it) promise a “partnership” with their clients but too often can’t keep that same promise among the equity shareholders of their businesses.

A new example has come to light this week with some recent reporting on the Fieger law firm here in Michigan (for those outside the state, that is the attorney made famous by representing Jack Kevorkian in the ’90s). In this blog by Chad Halcolm of Crain’s Detroit Business and this column by Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson, the public is taken inside the firm to learn that, essentially, not all partners are created equally, at least in the mind of Mr. Fieger.

In our experience, we have found this type of scenario to be relatively common. We know of business “partners” yelling and screaming at each other, within earshot of staff members. We know of a firm where two top “partners” literally do not speak to one other. We have dealt with very large firms where caste-like systems are in place based on which “partners” bring in more business than others. We have even seen firms in which “partners” are so competitive with one other, they set up what are essentially rival companies, under one roof, with shared resources.

Some business owners, based on their personalities and values, are just better off being the only “boss” and having employees “under them.” Others thrive off the chemistry of a sound relationship that makes everyone around them better. Most top performers in professional services fit into one category or another. But, because “partnerships” can often be lucrative (under the “more is more” category), some who should run their business, their way, on their own end up with one or more partners. Money can too often cloud issues in relationships, and often for years.

For consumers of professional services, the important lesson is this – before making a business decision with a firm, try to gauge the health of the partnership between its partners. That can often be a determining factor for staff retention, the viability of the business long-term and, most importantly, your experience as a client.