I’m always a little bemused by those notices in the legal press in which national law firms announce that “X has joined the partnership.” I find it odd that a lawyer in, say, the Montreal office could refer to another lawyer in, say, the Vancouver office, as “my partner.” It seems to stretch the word rather beyond its general meaning.
The strict dictionary definition of “partnership,” as applied in a business context, is “a legal relation existing among persons contractually associated as joint principals in a business.” That’s a suitably dry, distant reading of the term for lawyers, who like to keep warmth and familiarity out of the workplace wherever possible. But it doesn’t jibe very well with the common understanding of what a partner is.
Think about the ways in which the word is used outside the law — “dance partner,” “tennis partner,” “jogging partner,” even “domestic partner.” They all suggest elements of teamwork, togetherness, friendship, common goals, and sharing. Try bringing up togetherness and friendship at the next partnership meeting and see how well that goes.
A lot of law firms these days, though, are gripped with tension and even turmoil about matters like partner compensation, partner defections to other firms, or partners’ behaviour towards others. At the core of many of these difficulties is a shortage of mutual trust, openness and common interest — precisely the elements that make non-law partnerships so successful. Maybe firms should rethink their aversion to the touchy-feely aspects of partnership.
This post originally appeared as the editorial in the December 2007 issue of National magazine.