The curmudgeon in me chafes at the over-use of “partnering.” Law firms and law departments cuddlying up and sharing goals and scratching each other’s synergistic backs causes tears to well up at conferences and in fawning articles – but I have doubts. So does an article in MIT Sloan Mgt. Review (Spring 2005 at pg. 75) entitled “The Dark Side of Close Relationships.”
“Relationships that appear to be doing well are often the most vulnerable to the forces of destruction that are quietly building,” the article intones. It describes how these destructive forces build: short run benefits work at cross purposes to long-run strength (for example, discounted fees by the firm repel the best associates); strong, trusting relationships spawn cheating (the go-to firm starts cutting quality or over-billing the credulous law department); and unique processes and adaptations bring rigidity (for example, the vaunted extranet stunts other useful technology links).
To keep Luke Skywalker Department from the Dark Side, the authors suggest several precautions, including (1) evaluating older relationships (a possibility is changing relationship partners every few years); (2) develop backups – which puts pressure on efforts to converge law firms; (3) “take mutual hostages”, such as investments in joint training, joint hiring, knowledge management, and shared paralegals such that firm and department will lose if the partnering relationship sours; and (4) establish common goals, such as balanced scorecard metrics.