This is the fourth and final column in a series based on a recorded discussion with George Collins, who died in October at age 85.
George Collins handled many law firm dissolutions over the six decades he practiced law. He talked about the two issues that come up in almost every firm breakup: Who keeps the main phone number and who keeps the office space.
“I’ve seen it where you have the phone number goes to an operator and ‘Who did you want to talk to? Mr. Smith? OK. Mr. Smith may now be reached at a certain number.’ If there is a big distrust, then that doesn’t work very well and doesn’t work very long.”
The stakes over real estate aren’t as high in Chicago.
“The office space in a city like ours is not so critical. The clients find you by internet, by telephone and so forth. We don’t have a store on the courthouse square. Now, I knew a lawyer in one downstate place that had a breakup …. There were four lawyers in the county and two of them had a fight. The question was who got the office right across from the courthouse. We worked it out eventually, but that doesn’t happen in the city.”
Next, George and I talked about the best ways to divide a firm’s clients.
“One method that I did was, there was a large population of pretty significant cases. These guys were card players — when they were friends, they used to play cards constantly. I said, ‘OK, high card gets to pick one. Next guy picks two.’ We did high card. I don’t know how to play bridge or poker or anything — I don’t even know — but I know what is a deck of cards. I can tell it from a banana. We sat down, and one guy drew a black ace and the other guy drew something, and so this guy said, ‘I’ll pick this particular case.’ ‘OK, it’s your choice. Ours is second and third …’ I did that in a real estate partnership once. Guys owned buildings together. How do you divide the buildings? Well, we did a coin flip, not high card. They had been to the point where they were carrying pistols. They were that mad at each other. We had this big, long session of selecting this building or that building, and ‘Why would he take that building because this one is better?’ It was interesting to watch, but you have the absolute right to the next choice. You get first choice, where the other guy gets absolute right to the second choice. Their personalities were different. One of them was more into building management, the other more into speculation, and it worked out OK.”
I asked George if he tried to counsel the lawyers to resolve their differences and keep the firm intact.
“Basically I’m in favor of breakups because when trust is gone, the firm is gone. If the trust is gone, you have to break up. … You should not have to walk into an office and distrust your partner. Quit. Go someplace else.”
George talked about how to leave a firm ethically.
“The correct thing to do is, you be as friendly as you wish with a client. You can smile when they tell dumb jokes and whatever, but you do not set up the shift in business. You don’t say, ‘I’m leaving Tuesday. Can I come and see you?’ You can say, ‘I’d like to see you on Tuesday,’ but you can’t say, ‘I’m leaving the old firm and I’m coming to see you.’ A person should not — in a law firm who plans to leave — should not go into that. You don’t need the greatest lawyer in the world, but you need to read the [Dowd and Dowd v.] Gleason case.”
And, finally, George shared his thoughts about lawyers socializing.
“You shouldn’t mess with your partner’s wife and things like that. You should be socially correct with your partners. It doesn’t mean you have to socialize, but you should be, in all events, correct.”
Outside social interaction can complicate things.
“The rivalry. It doesn’t always hurt. Sometimes the marital partner of the partner gets along very well with the others and it solidifies, but believe me, if one person’s tastes run to a Bentley and another one to a Fiat, it can hurt even if there’s no economic disparity.
“There are people who don’t want a Bentley, and there are people who’d really rather have a bigger car than a Fiat. You just allocate your own money as you will, but you don’t want to … except for weddings and funerals, you don’t socialize much.”