Plenty of Subtle Yet Important Differences
Working with members of business families often means crossing paths with other professionals who also advise their businesses along the way.
One of the under-appreciated subtleties involved in such relationships comes when the person seeking the professional advice needs to also get personal advice, as opposed to simply seeking counsel for the good of the business.
These issues can get especially tricky when the professionals in question are attorneys, who have their own professional codes and standards regarding who their client really is.
These professionals are typically very aware of the differences and quite astute as to the ways that they need to be handled; it is often the clients themselves who sometimes blur the lines.
Let’s look at some of the situations where this can occur.
It Comes Down to “We” Versus “Me”
The simplest way to describe the different scenarios is to think about who needs the advice; is it the company or one of the people from the company.
Just to put a finer point on this, the vast majority of these cases involve the owners of the company, as opposed to those who are simply employees, although that can also certainly happen on occasion.
But when someone needs to clarify things from a legal perspective, it typically comes down to whether the advice is around how the company should do something, or what various owners’ rights are on a certain matter.
And those differences are rather stark, and need to be looked at not just on their merits, but also on the perception around how seeking that advice is seen by others.
Intra-Company Urinating Contests
There’s a huge difference between saying “I’m going to call our lawyer about…” and “I’m calling my lawyer!”
Is the person calling the lawyer “for me” or “for us”?
When things among co-owners of the same business become an “Us vs. Them” contest, watch out.
Let’s just look at a few types of situations I’ve been involved with in the past couple of years.
I had one coaching client, a woman from the second generation of a family, who now co-owned 1/3 of the company her father started, along with her two brothers.
When she expressed a reluctance to be alone in a room with one of them, I knew that this situation was beyond what coaching could help resolve, and I recommended that she engage a lawyer, for herself.
Dad and Brother Put On the Squeeze
More recently a man who was preparing to become a 50-50 owner, with his brother, of the company their father started, came to see me about helping them mediate some rough spots.
At our second meeting, I learned that both his brother and his father had recently done some things that gave me grave concern about their intentions.
I recommended that he “start looking for a lawyer”.
As I explained to him, he needed to create a relationship with an attorney now, in advance, because it felt to me like he may, one day (perhaps soon) need to take some action, legally, vis-à-vis, his partners.
In both of these cases, I knew that the potential for me to have any impact was very limited, and I was better off stepping aside, and essentially saying “I’m outta here!”.
Mediation as a “Last Gasp Effort”
Another recent client family, involves a sibling group of four, who are now equal owners of what’s left of a business started decades ago by their late father.
With some siblings who worked most or all of their adult lives for the company and others who did so very intermittently, they’re now in a situation where the distrust outweighed the trust.
During my one-on-one meetings with each of them, every last one of them, at one point or another, mentioned that they were considering engaging their own lawyer.
In fact, it became clear to me that I was the last stop for them, and if things did not work out with me acting as their mediator, at least one of them would be hiring a lawyer.
In Case of Emergency, Break Glass
Being in a position where I feel like I’m almost a “last hope” comes with its challenges.
But when the participants all know it too, and are aware of the stakes, they can become quite focused on working out a deal.
Because if one of them “lawyer’s up” the rest will need to as well.