Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers: Managing the managing partner

Issue March/April 2018 By Dr. Jeff Fortgang

I am contacting you on behalf of several lawyers at our small law firm in southeastern Massachusetts. The situation we face is that our managing partner has become more or less a ghost. Though instrumental in starting this firm and formerly central in its operations, he changed after he was widowed over a year ago. He looked somewhat frail, and since that time he has shown much less interest in the firm’s activities. At this point, he is essentially unavailable to his fellow attorneys and to clients. We know that he is well enough to continue traveling, and spending parts of the year in warmer climates, and occasionally he communicates via text. But he seems to be oblivious or indifferent to how his absence is affecting the rest of us, not to mention that he continues to write checks from our diminishing operating funds (but fortunately not the IOLTA account). We are at something of a loss as to how to handle this matter both in a professional/business sense and on a human/personal level.

You’re right that this is a matter that calls for both clinical and practice management strategies — not that there is any cookbook recipe for handling a boss who is virtually missing in action. Obviously, as an LCL clinician, I am in no position to advise you on the legal and professional ethical requirements of this situation, and for that would refer you to the BBO Ethics Helpline: (617) 728-8750, (Mon., Wed. and Fri., 2– 4p.m.).  

In addition, our Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP) may be able to offer suggestions, from a practice/business management standpoint, for keeping the firm afloat at this time of financial instability.

From a clinical standpoint, we can assume that this man’s state of mind has been deeply affected, most likely by grief but possibly by other factors, and I would be considering whether there is a viable way to put together a kind of Intervention. You’ve heard of Interventions (the upper-case “I” distinguishes this from a more generic term) with regard to addictions. A similar process is sometimes applicable to other situations in which multiple people are concerned about an individual who him- or herself seems to be unaware (or in denial) of a serious problem. Among the types of problems in this category may be depression, cognitive impairment, and poorly managed anger, as well as adverse effects of medications or medical conditions. In some ways, Interventions are less potent now (i.e., their impact may be delayed and diluted), in the managed care era, than they were when it was possible to pre-arrange treatment without obtaining authorization. Speedy transition to treatment may still be possible when arranging weekly outpatient therapy but not for anything more intensive (unless plenty of personal funds are available to cover treatment costs).  

In this case, you are uncertain as to what has caused the very significant change in your managing partner’s behavior, other than the likelihood that it was triggered by his loss, so the course of action that you would be encouraging is a careful clinical evaluation. Fortunately, since he is a Massachusetts lawyer and LCL’s services are free to lawyers, the evaluation can be pre-arranged, though there may be a subsequent need for further outside assessment, such as neuropsychological testing. The purpose of the Intervention would be to override denial of this partner’s behavioral problems and motivate him to take responsible action to address them.  Those who participate would be coming from a position of both compassion and firmness — that is, they would be caring and supportive but also unwilling to stand by while he evades his responsibilities to himself and to the firm. It is not necessary to arrive at a particular diagnosis – that would be left in the hands of a behavioral health professional, and would be the first order of business if he follows your recommendation. Should he refuse to listen or respond, you would have to fall back on disciplinary and legal measures. If he agrees to come to LCL — and you can accompany him both as a support and to relay your own observations — one of our clinicians will assess his functioning from a mental health perspective and put together a plan for further evaluation and/or treatment. This is not only an appropriate way to attempt to salvage the firm and safeguard its employees, but also to promote your colleague’s wellbeing. 

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