I have not spoken much about my previous business partnership in this column. I guess that’s because, when I started writing for Solo Practice University, it was pretty fresh and raw. I was still stinging about the end of what in the beginning had promised to be my law career’s happily ever after.
And… I missed Alyson. My business partner and my friend, the person with whom I spent every waking minute from June 2009 until December 2010.
A business divorce is no different from a marital divorce in most regards. You divvy up the property, sell the stuff that nobody wants to take with them and pay the last of the bills the best you can with whatever is left in the bank. You file that last tax return together. You change the name, but you are carrying on the same business. You fight. You cry. You decide who’s getting the house… er, office. Instead of deciding who gets custody of the kids, you sent letters to the clients promising them that you are the one they really want to go with. If things go badly enough, you end up in mediation or even in court to decide what that Shareholders Agreement means and who gets what.
When Alyson and I broke up our law firm, it felt like I was losing everything. It felt that way to her, too. We both felt betrayed. We both felt tired.
I won’t go into the she-said/she-said of why we broke up the firm. It happens. You need different things from your careers. Money is tight and you fight about it. You can’t agree on how to run the business, much less how to practice law. You disagree on what clients you want to serve, what services to offer. You didn’t adequately think through the responsibilities each of you would shoulder. Or maybe one of you figures out that they just don’t want to run a law firm after all. There are endless reasons why a law firm breaks up.
At the very end, I remember that our bitterest fights were about who got to “keep” the goodwill of the business: Who owned the website and domain name, and how would we handle taking the site down? Who (if anyone) got to keep the phone number? Would we forward email from the old addresses to our new firms? What about our branding and logo?
In the end, nobody got anything. My husband – who is an IT guy and, as it turned out, was the one who owned the domain name – forwarded the old domain to my new website for a brief time, but that was just his way of annoying Alyson. I never got any traffic from it, and when I found out about it I made him stop. Alyson got the old phone system, but had to choose a different number. Email got forwarded. The money we spent on a logo and marketing was just wasted.
Nowadays, Alyson and I are friends, but at a distance. I still think she is an amazing attorney – one of the best litigators I have ever known, and absolutely brilliant at getting problems resolved for her clients. If she was not working in-house, I would happily refer clients to her. I have no idea what she thinks of me professionally, nor do I care to ask. We chat about safe subjects – art, film, photography, theater, her kid. We mostly see each other online, on Facebook.The advice part of this column – you knew it was coming, right? – is pretty straightforward:
Just as you need to know yourself and be comfortable with who you are before you get married to anyone else, you need to know who you are as an attorney and as an entrepreneur before you get into a law firm partnership. What do you want out of it? What do you hope to accomplish? How do you hope to benefit by the partnership? Wanting to quit your job isn’t enough.
Know Thy Partner.
If there are skeletons in the closet – personally or professionally – find out now. You are entering into a business marriage. Why do you want to business-marry this particular person? Know your partner as well (if not quite as intimately) as you would know a prospective spouse. Spend a long time “dating” – talking about the partnership, your roles, the business, marketing, clients, everything. Write a draft of a business plan together and know what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are. Be picky.
Nobody wants a business partner who is a deadbeat, just like nobody wants a spouse who is a deadbeat. So be prepared to make it rain all by yourself. Treat your practice as though you are a solo practitioner, even though you have a partner. Expect the same of your partner.
You might be tempted to tiptoe around your partner, afraid you might hurt their feelings or, God forbid, they might disagree with you and have a fight. But a little honesty – with yourself and with your partner – goes a long way.
Do not settle for less than the full respect of your business partner. Do not get into a partnership with someone you do not fully respect.
Know When To Leave.
If things do not feel right when you are getting started, or if you get the feeling that something isn’t right as you go along, listen to that voice in your head telling you to leave. Do not wait for things to get bitter and divisive. Just say, “It’s not working out,” and go. You are not doing anyone any favors by prolonging the agony.
I have said before that a great friendship does not translate into a good business partnership. What I have not made clear is that a bad business partnership can easily kill a good friendship. Alyson and I will never be the kind of friends we were – best friends – before our partnership.
Business partnerships are like marriages; and if you don’t want yours to end in divorce, know what you are getting into before you say, “I do.”
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