So happy together? Family unit doesn’t always make a good team at work

  • March 29, 2017
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James


Some law firms are family businesses – with lawyers, their spouses, children and other family members playing key roles in the firm.

This arrangement works for some families, but lawyers and experts caution that it isn’t for everyone.

“Some family members love being around each other 24-7 and work well together,” says Doron Gold, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and former practising lawyer. “But this depends very much on the relationship.”

Gold advises that working together only works for family members who are “good at being around each other all day.”

Bradley Smith, who works with his wife Jurga Smith at Wingham Law Corporation in Vanderhoof, B.C., agrees.

He says he’s not sure whether he’d recommend this working arrangement for other lawyers at small firms.

“Such an arrangement would not work for every modern couple. It probably comes down to personalities and not just technical complimentary skills,” says Bradley Smith, adding that stability in the relationship is another factor to keep in mind.

Jurga Smith, who works as her husband’s bookkeeper and office manager, echoes his comments, saying, “I would only recommend this for a strong, committed, mature couples.”

If spouses are interested in working together, Jurga Smith recommends starting on a part-time basis. “Maybe just doing some bookkeeping to test if it works.”

Gold recommends that couples who work together ensure they set boundaries.

“When business is being transacted, the partners must be focused on business and not intermingling their personal relationship with business,” he says. “The partners need to have a really good awareness that their roles as husband and wife at home are a different thing than being colleagues at work.”

In his experience, the relationship dynamics change between the home and the office, says Bradley Smith.

“Ultimately, as the lawyer I must often have the final say over certain matters, for example, liability risks. It is natural for her as the non-lawyer spouse to view me as she would at home –my husband, and not the lawyer and her employer,” he says. “I imagine that democracy is a concept that can’t always effectively apply in a small law firm environment. I am sure that that is a hard lesson to learn but I wouldn’t know, nor would I want to.”

Jurga Smith agrees that it can be difficult to separate work and home life.

“I view myself as the dominant person at home, so at work I have to quickly change roles,” she says.

David E.M. Jenkins, an associate at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP, says that he loves working with his father, a senior partner at the law firm.

But Jenkins recommends that lawyers considering working with a family member think about the personalities involved.

“If you have an overbearing parent, sometimes work is your escape from personal life and personal life stresses. And when those are brought into the workplace, you’re not getting the break that you need from that aspect of your life,” he says. “That is certainly something that you need to be aware of and try to avoid if at all possible.”

Gold agrees that awareness of possible personality conflicts is important.

“You don’t want this to be the undoing of your personal relationship,” says Gold, whose services are available for free for lawyers, paralegals and their family members in Ontario through the Law Society of Upper Canada Member Assistance Program.

As well, some families have financial concerns if both spouses are working at the same law firm, since the entire family is relying on one source of income.

By working with your spouse, you’re “putting all of your eggs into one basket,” says Bradley Smith.

Gold says family members need to make sure that they are not working with each other out of obligation – or the feeling they have no other choice.

“Sometimes people feel obliged to work with their partners,” he says. “But if both parties are voluntarily submitting themselves to that arrangement then that could be a very productive and rewarding relationship.”

For Jenkins, the benefits of working with his father outweighed any concerns.

“Working with my dad was a much better choice for me personally than articling and working with someone who is not a family member because as a young lawyer I was given an opportunity to get more insight into files and the practise of law. I didn’t feel like I was stepping on a senior lawyer’s toes as would be the case if the person I was working with was not a family member,” he says. “I feel that I was able to learn more from my dad based upon the fact that I am his son and he gave me more of his time.”

Jenkins, who practises criminal law like his father, says that he thinks his father’s mentorship has helped his career.

“As a family member, my father has a vested interest in seeing me succeed because parents want the best for their children,” he says. “He put a lot more time and effort into trying to help me succeed as a lawyer than another lawyer would have done for somebody who wasn’t family.”

Jenkins says the “single biggest problem” he deals with is the fact that he and his father have identical names, right down to the middle initial – his father’s is distinguished only by the Q.C. at the end.

“I am continually dealing with people getting us confused and people thinking that I am the lawyer on a certain file or that he is the lawyer on a certain file,” he says. “I spend upwards of 10 minutes a day every day dealing with that issue alone.”

A new father, he chose to give his son a different name so that if the boy joins the family business, he will have a much easier time, Jenkins says with a laugh. “My son will save a lot of time that he will be able to devote to more productive things.”

Carolynne Burkholder is a lawyer with Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C.