When Lies and Half-Truths erode Trust between Partners

This article first appeared in Managing Partner Magazine in April 2013 and is reproduced with their permission.

In my Ark Special Report “Tackling Partner Underperformance in Law Firms” I attempted to define underperformance in terms of the failure to meet the firm’s standards of performance or behaviour.  It is always difficult to judge when a partner’s performance has become so repeatedly sub-standard that he or she should be asked to leave the firm; what is even trickier is to decide when to get rid of partners and senior staff who exhibit destructive behaviour or who have demonstrated dishonesty and lack of integrity.  Even in the most corporate of legal service organisations, the spirit of partnership still exists to promote relationships of the utmost good faith, and failure to meet the firm’s ethical standards must surely lead to irretrievable breakdown between the parties.

Within the question of internal ethics, the subject of lying is not one that is often written about and yet taxes the brain and the conscience of most managing partners.  The problem can quickly erode trust – after all, if a partner lies to another partner, it raises the fear that the partner may also lie to others including clients.

The first and most obvious starting point is to make it clear that if there is anybody now alive on this planet who would claim never to have lied, please get in touch!  Unfortunately, we are all tempted to lie.  A study about five years ago of 50 employees by the University of Central Lancashire revealed that about one-third of the respondents admitted to deception in the workplace, with 15% saying they had actually lied.

An obvious first step when faced with an allegation of lying is to establish why the partner lied.  An academic study (now twenty years old) concluded that stress and distress caused by role conflict commonly leads to lying.  The paper listed four types of role conflict – conflict between a person’s internal standards or values and the expected role behaviour, conflict between the time, resources or capabilities of the person lying and that person’s role, conflict between various roles for the same person causing incompatible behaviours and conflicting expectations and organisational demands in the form of incompatible policies.

The simple step of understanding the reason for lying may sometimes help to excuse and resolve an isolated incident, particularly with a low-stakes lie.  However, repeated behaviour or lies told when the stakes are high very often undermine the relationship to an intolerable extent and the difficult question is to define the line in the sand, to cross which must inevitably mean a parting of the ways.  The depth of dishonesty also needs to be addressed. There is a distinction which is frequently drawn between a lie and a statement that is not strictly untrue but creates a misleading impression.  In 1796 Edmund Burke famously allowed the now frequently used ‘economy with the truth” laxity.  He wrote: “Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever: But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth.”  Between partners, however, such laxity is inappropriate. My definition of a lie between partners includes therefore statements made with an intention to mislead.

In order to be able to take action, every firm has to define its own standards but I offer three tests, any one of which are indications of  a complete breakdown of trust and confidence which ought to lead to a parting of the ways.

The first test is one of scale.  Small lies may be relatively harmless but a big lie – even a single unrepeated one – about an issue of real importance to the firm may prove impossible to forgive.  The second test goes to frequency.  If the individual has lied on more than one occasion about the same issue or different issues, or has become an inveterate liar, the situation may be difficult to retrieve.  The third test is the extent of the audience to the untruth.  Whilst a lie by one partner to another individual may affect the relationship between those two, the relationship with the whole firm may remain unaffected.  Where however, the lie has been widely broadcast to partners or staff (or, what is worse, to clients and external parties) the effects can be profound, not least because in such a case the behaviour is perceived to be reflective of the whole firm and not just the partner concerned.

I go back to the relationship of utmost good faith that ought to exist between partners.  This relationship in my view leads inexorably to the imposition of extremely high standards of behaviour between partners and renders big lies, frequent untruths and widely disseminated dishonest statements unacceptable.  Even where the dishonest partner is senior, powerful or highly productive, most firms find from bitter experience that a breakdown of trust and good faith between partners carries an insidious and long term negative consequence which accordingly needs to be dealt with at an early stage.