Address concern before it is a major problem

Issue May 2004

Q:A difference of opinion exists between me and another partner about whether or not to address a problem developing with a third partner who, in the last several weeks, has been less attentive to his personal appearance and has become increasingly irritable, uncooperative and given to outbursts of temper. We are aware of the so-called "intervention" strategies used to address alcoholism, but there is no evidence of substance abuse and the quality of his work does not appear to be affected. I say it's not our business until his work performance suffers. My partner disagrees. He says we should do something "before it gets worse and does affect his work performance." What do you say?

A:Observing disturbing behavioral changes in a colleague always provokes concern, accompanied by mixed feelings and ideas about what to do, if anything. Some may believe it is easier to address such changes at the point that the firm is exposed to liability risks. Undeniable facts that verify the risk provide grounds for some kind of intervention, which serves to protect the firm as well as leverage the troubled lawyer toward remedial action and assistance. Even at this point, confronting a colleague about problem behavior evokes discomfort, e.g., fear of exacerbating the situation or guilt about perceived betrayal.

Addressing changes in behavior that has not yet affected work performance may seem even more uncomfortable, intrusive, unwelcome, especially when withdrawal, anger or other negative behaviors already discourage even minimal pleasantries. However, if such behavior has persisted or progressed over a period of weeks, breaking the silence by sharing your observations and concern for the individual acknowledges the existence of a problem, its effect on him/her, yourself and others, and raises reasonable questions about eventual effects on performance. Discussing the issue in a private, caring and sensitive manner further conveys an expectation and confidence in the troubled lawyer's ability to do something to get back on track.

In contrast, delaying action until all concerned are fed up or traumatized usually results in costly damage control and counter-productive over-reaction. However strenuously most of us would rather avoid it, confronting a troubled colleague may help prevent significant and unnecessary human and financial loss to both the individual and the firm. Therefore, we would advise addressing a problem sooner than later, thus protecting the individual's career and the collective investment in the firm of all concerned.

LCL can serve as a consultant to firms or law departments in which a member of the team needs the support and intervention of his/her colleagues.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from LCL.