Really Concerned

  • May 07, 2021

Dear Advy,

I have been with the same law firm since I articled - it's a great firm and I really care about the people I work with. I am concerned about one of my partners, though. He's an older gentleman, the real elder statesman of the firm, but to me, he seems to be slipping mentally. It's not very obvious, and I don't think any clients are at risk or anything... yet. How can I tell if he is just, you know, getting older or if this is the onset of something more insidious? I want to be sensitive and discreet, but feel some responsibility as a friend, partner, and member of the firm.

- Really Concerned

Dear Really Concerned,

The first question to ask yourself is: How would you want a friend and colleague to broach this with you if the roles were reversed? You would probably want them to ask you, first of all. Your colleague deserves to hear your frank observations of what has been going wrong. Have the conversation, even if a big part of you wants to avoid it.   

Here are five pointers when you do. 

1. Be prepared for a bad reception.   

No matter how well you bring it up, don’t be surprised if your colleague does go into fight-or-flight mode. He may do both. Give him a physical opportunity to cut the discussion short and come back to it later. If you can have the discussion while you’re out for a walk with him, or in a neutral space in the office, so much the better. Remember that if he takes it badly at first, that is not your fault and you didn’t betray your colleague regardless of what he might say or what he might deny. You’re being his ally, but it’s natural for him to not see it that way at first.   

2. Don’t expect to fix this in one conversation.   

It’s a corollary of what I’m telling you in the previous point, but don’t scuttle yourself with an overly ambitious agenda for the first pass at this problem. If your colleague reacts badly in the first conversation, that doesn’t mean it’s unsolvable. Be available and supportive and wait until your colleague is able to really hear the concern in your voice rather than reading a threat. That may take time. Build a bad initial response into your expectations, but keep the door open to your colleague’s reconsidering his first angry/evasive/unhelpful words.  

3. Talk about this as “in-person” as you possibly can. 

What increases the odds of your partner’s actually hearing your question instead of reacting to the threat you may not even mean to be there? Hard as it is to have an in-person conversation these days, try to have the discussion in person. When you are delivering a message, your body, your tone of voice, and everything you’ve said leading up to and following your raising the subject communicate a great deal. If those powerful communication tools are consistent with the non-threatening message that you also value your colleague and want him to stick around for the long term your odds of his taking the question well are greater. Zoom calls and phone calls usually flatten out all of the rich messaging our physical presence can bring to a difficult conversation.   

4. Be open to ideas other than just retirement and listen sincerely.  

Whether you manage to get in the message that no you’re not trying to get rid of him during your first go-round or that has to wait until your colleague is able to take it in more calmly, get that message across clearly and sincerely.   

As a society, we overstate the degree to which people “slip” in old age. Older people often have greater emotional intelligence than younger people. Cognitive acuity may change over time, yes, but it is probably more accurate to say our abilities shift over time rather than declining. Your colleague has more to offer than just the shrinking remnants of the skills he had “back in the day”. Even if his ability to notice legal issues or remember all the elements of an R v. Collins test has declined; his ability to connect disparate concepts and to see “out of the box” solutions to legal problems is probably growing, not shrinking right now. Our cultural approach to aging is reflected in the word you chose: “slipping”. What might look like a slip may be evidence of thinking differently, not thinking poorly. Your colleague might not be able to do some things he did when he was younger, but he has also developed other abilities he didn’t used to have. Some organizational psychologists refer to two kinds of intelligence:  fluids intelligence and crystalized intelligence. Fluid intelligence – what we tend to think of as mental sharpness - does decrease after mid-life. Crystalized intelligence is the capacity to compare current situations and problems with ones encountered previously and to fashion solutions through those comparisons. That largely grows over a lifetime.    

Be fully present in the conversation. Don’t do what we lawyers love to do which is to listen to his answer only as fodder for the next question leading to a conclusion you’ve already arrived at. Be sincere about trying to find your colleague the best role he wants to fulfill rather than assigning him to the dust heap. Maybe your colleague could do with some help catching deadlines and retrieving details of cases. Maybe your colleague needs some time off. Maybe there are all kinds of other things that would help him. The best solutions are probably going to come out of really listening to him. You were born with two ears and one mouth. Take that as a sign that you should listen twice as much as you talk.  

5. Consider the possibility that you may not be the best messenger.   

Is there someone else at the firm that your colleague is particularly close with? If what you’ve observed has the potential one day of putting clients in jeopardy, then this is a matter that the other partners of the firm have a stake in. Without turning it into a whisper campaign, have a discussion with your partners about this.   They may have noticed similar issues or they may disagree with you. They may also know who would be the best person to raise the issue with your colleague in a way that your colleague can actually hear. 

Your local Lawyers’ Assistance Program may well have people who have experience with this kind of conversation. Give them a call and see if they can help you, or at least coach you through what you need to do.

That call to your LAP has a side benefit: When (not if) the conversation goes badly, you may need some support. There’s nothing like an empathetic outsider to help you deal with your own emotional reaction to what is happening. Having that set up in advance can be a big help in keeping you focused on the hard job of discussing this with your colleague. 

Be well!
- Advy