This Could Be The Beginning Of A Beautiful Partnership

"Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." - Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to Police Captain Louis Renault, in Casablanca.

For those familiar with the quintessential Bogie film Casablanca, the friendship is more strange than beautiful. Expatriate Bogie (Rick) and Nazi shill Renault have what appears to be on the surface a cordial, mutually gratifying relationship. But when we get a glimpse beneath the surface, it is apparent that that they not only have different perspectives, but conflicting motives as well.

And yet, even with the contradictory nature of their relationship, in the end they walk off arm in arm, convinced that despite their differences - perhaps even because of them - they are better off with each other than without. And thus, a beautiful friendship, and a productive partnership, is born.

And so it is with so many successful partnerships - radically different personalities with diverse temperaments and conflicting viewpoints, somehow manage to work better together, and reap benefits far greater than going solo. Think about some of the great partnerships: Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid; Abbott & Costello; Montana & Rice; Batman & Robin; peanut butter & jelly.

The truth is, those individuals may never have risen to their level of greatness without their partners - with the obvious exception being peanut butter of course, which achieves mighty levels of greatness whether teamed with jelly, chocolate, bananas, or any other of many worthy partners

And the same can certainly be said when it comes to partnering relationships between corporations and their legal departments, and the so-called "service providers." With often disparate views of the world, somehow certain corporate legal departments and selected service providers have been able to forge beautiful friendships, and productive partnerships, to the mutual benefit and betterment of both.

Having worked for FTI Consulting Trial Services for over 20 years, I have experienced both the pleasure, and the pain, of preferred partnering relationships with legal departments of several major corporations. And I believe I have learned some valuable lessons that can be helpful to both the corporate legal partner, and the partnering "service provider."

Quick digression here: "Service provider" is in quotation marks because I find it to be at best a meaningless descriptor, and at worst, a demeaning insult, to the highly skilled professionals who provide valuable consulting expertise to their clients involved in high-stakes litigation.

The same goes for "vendor." Vendors sell hot dogs. Plumbers are service providers. I am a litigation consultant, with more trials under my belt than the clients I serve. So please spare me the ignominy, and enough with the "service provider," already.

In any event, I come from the consulting side of the partnering equation, so my views on the pluses and minuses of partnering relationships are necessarily filtered through the consulting, and not the corporate, lens. But, as I'm sure is obvious, this publication is called The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel - so it behooves me to offer information that those of you on the corporate side will find useful in assessing your own partnering relationships.

So here we go, in the spirit of David Letterman - the top 10 keys to a successful partnering relationship:

10. Recognize from the outset that just like Butch and Sundance, and Rick and Captain Renault, you enter the relationship with potentially very different perspectives. And the Big Daddy of all differing perspectives is - you guessed it - financial. What is the primary goal of every corporate legal department in the country? Reduce costs. What is the primary goal of every consulting company in the country? Be profitable. Are they mutually exclusive? Of course not - otherwise partnerships would cease to exist. The point is, acknowledge this disparity from the beginning, and the relationship will be based on an honest understanding of what both parties hope to achieve as partners.

9. Know your partner. It sounds silly, but the truth is that corporations are often a complex hierarchy of subsidiaries, business units, product lines and partnerships - and so are consulting companies. For the consulting partner, it pays to know the lines of business and associated potential issues a corporate partner may face; for the corporate partner, it pays to know the whole spectrum of skills the consulting partner can bring to bear upon those issues.

Case in point: FTI for many years was primarily a trial consulting company engaged in communications consulting, trial technology, and jury research. For a period of time, a long-term partnering client was unaware that FTI had added a wide spectrum of financial and economic consulting services that have the potential to add immediate value in their current litigation landscape.

8. Further to the above, take the time to educate each other about each other. Abbott & Costello didn't just show up one day, shake hands, and take the stage. Butch and Sundance didn't just bump into each other and decide to start robbing banks. One partnering relationship we are involved in began with a 5-6 month period of meetings with different practice groups to discuss both our capabilities, and their needs - sort of a mutual due diligence that allowed us both to get on the right track from the outset.

7. Remember, you are in a relationship. And just like the relationship with your spouse, your friends, your neighbors, if you put the time into it, it will thrive. And if you don't, it won't. My personal experience in this area is one of both success and failure. On one hand I invested a great deal of time in developing and building a valued relationship with a major corporate client; on the other, I watched that relationship fade as I allowed my time and attention to be diverted to other projects and problems.

6. As an addendum to #7, what do couples do when they haven't spent enough time together? They do a relationship check. They schedule a night out to assess where they are, and what they need to do to get things back on track. Make it a habit to schedule quarterly meetings to review not only the financial/business aspects of the relationship, but also the relational aspects, examining the levels of communication, honesty, and integrity between partners.

5. Remember the famous movie line "Love means never having to say you're sorry?" Well, partnering means often having to say you're sorry. Misunderstandings occur; jobs get messed up; miscommunication makes things worse. A healthy partnering relationship means being able to own your mistakes, and being able to call your partner on theirs - with the intent of rectifying the situation, and strengthening the relationship. Open and honest discussion of problems is the only way a partnership can survive.

4. Be creative, be bold, be fearless - especially when it comes to the business end of the relationship. There has been enough written and said in recent years about the value of alternative fee structures that it shouldn't come as any surprise that partners are looking for more and more creative - and novel - ways to attack the cost reduction v. make a profit conundrums facing partnering relationships. Maybe it is phased in discounts based on volume; maybe an at-risk contingency fee; maybe something no one's thought of yet - maybe you'll think of it.

3. Be willing to give, with no expectation or requirement to get something in return. In other words, do not build a relationship strictly on "what am I (are we) going to get out of this?" Partnering often requires some form of sacrifice, whether it be time, costs, or simply a willingness to put the needs of your partner in front of your own. From the consulting standpoint, that might mean doing work gratis, simply because it is a developmental or exploratory project that is important to the corporate client. From the corporate side, it might mean lending the weight and authority of the corporate reputation to help a consulting partner secure new work. Either way, there must be a recognition that partners cannot be motivated by business concerns alone, and in fact, there is a place for an altruistic approach in the legal marketplace.

2. Know when to say goodbye. Like the athlete who stays on a season or two too many, no one benefits when a partnering relationship goes stale, or outgrows itself due to changing needs or goals of either party. The fact is that businesses evolve; and a necessary part of that evolution is recognizing when a partnering relationship has outlived its usefulness, and has gone from being a blessing to a burden. In a discussion with one of our partners a while back, we ended a very honest and cordial assessment of the state of the partnership by asking the question, "is this still worth pursuing?" We haven't answered it yet, but in the asking, there is a clear acknowledgment that the relationship may have run its course.

And the drum roll please.

1. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. A fundamental premise of a partnership is that "you are my go-to guy," i.e., you're the company we trust, you're the people we rely upon, and you're the ones who are going to do our work. And it goes both ways; the consulting partner may turn down work because it conflicts with the interests of their partner; the corporate partner goes to their partner Company X, even though Company Y promises lower costs - because of their shared interests, common goals, and mutual trust. In all my years in the legal consulting field and partnering relationships, I've seen the most egregious offense is to be told you're a trusted partner, only to be dropped like a bad habit when it becomes a matter of convenience for your "partner."

Partners are supposed to work things out. Partners are supposed to trust each other enough to have the hard conversations, and find workable solutions. Partners are supposed to demonstrate loyalty and dedication to each other, in good times and bad. Does it sound a bit like a marriage? Well, in many ways it is. When vows are exchanged, there is an expectation that those vows will be honored. When partners commit to each other in a business relationship, there should be an expectation that those commitments will not only be honored, but cherished, as a special relationship.

So there you are; ten keys to a successful partnering relationship. If you're exploring a partnering relationship with another firm right now, incorporate those ten points into your analysis. If you're in a partnering relationship, use them to do a check on how well things are working out. Either way, ultimately, the goal for all of us, no matter which side of the equation we're on, is to end up like Rick and Renault walking into the future together, saying, "You know, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Published May 1, 2006.