Surviving a partnership split
In the first of a two-part series on partnership splits, Dr Petre Jones draws on his experience of two significant disputes to give practical advice on how to deal with them
Partnership difficulties are common. In my 17 years as a GP I have gone through two episodes. One resulted in a partner leaving and in the other, I and another partner left a well-respected, stable teaching practice. I have also had three of my past registrars talk to me about partnership disputes they were involved in. Even if you expect to join a practice and stay there for your whole career, there is no guarantee that trouble won't break out with one of your partners.
Along with being common, such disputes can be very upsetting, and can get very expensive, especially if lawyers are involved.
So what is the best way to deal with conflict with partners? There are many styles of partnership but perhaps the least helpful is the avoiding style. If you never have a disagreement it is likely that your style is to avoid conflict. If you whistle a happy tune
so you won't feel afraid, does that mean everything will be OK? Disagreements build
It is far more effective for the partnership relationship to talk about possible disagreements on a regular away day, perhaps, or by listening to how people feel and not just to what they say in partnership meetings. Talking at an early stage may be hard, but is likely to resolve issues.
The devil is in the detail
The other key way to deal with disagreements is to have a partnership deed, which
is a regular reference point to how the
practice works. Make sure it still reflects what you actually do and update it with signed and witnessed minutes from partnership meetings if you change anything. If
you do not have a partnership deed or if it
is in the middle of being rewritten and
renegotiated (for instance if the practice manager is becoming a partner), then you have a partnership at will and need to go back to the Partnership Act 1890. This Victorian legislation allows the partnership to be wound up potentially at a moment's notice simply by one partner saying they want to end it, resulting in
the business being wound up and divided equally between the partners. You can get around this by negotiating a dissolution agreement specifying, for instance, the date of the break-up and conditions of someone leaving. This is tricky mid-dispute when there are no guidelines, so get a deed and keep it updated so everyone knows where they stand.
What if talking isn't working? You've tried using all your interpersonal and consultation skills and still you don't see eye to eye. Probably there is more to this than the workload or money issues that we tend to talk about in partnership disagreements. There may be differences in core values or priorities. Perhaps partner A needs more income to pay school fees but partner B prioritises lower workload because of health problems. Socialist partner C doesn't want BUPA to approach the staff about private healthcare for their families, liberal partner D feels they should be offered the choice.
Mediation, for example with the BMA, may help, but like any relationship counselling it requires all parties to put in the effort to make it work.
If all else fails? If you simply can't stand each other and nothing seems to make it better, do nothing. Wait. Is this a difficult phase that will resolve with time? Don't throw out years of good relationship because of a few months of difficulty.
When it looks like this is it, you have two choices. You can seek legal advice about your partnership deed, then sit down with your partners and, however hard it may be, negotiate a way of parting company that minimises the impact on staff and patients and is as fair as possible to all partners. This is the grown-up approach and is analogous to a negotiated no-fault divorce settlement. Alternatively, you can brief lawyers and fight over the clauses of your partnership deed in court. This is childish and can make everybody bankrupt.
Partner refuses to leave?
What if my partner won't leave? If you have a partnership at will you can dissolve the business, but you may find they have equal right to continue to work from the same premises. If you have a valid deed, you cannot get rid of them unless they breach the terms of the deed pretty clearly. You can't kick them out because their views annoy you or because you just don't get on. This is not a partnership break-up, this is a dysfunctional partnership. All groups are dysfunctional in some way, and dealing with that is an important life skill. Perhaps you need to go back
to the beginning of this article and start to really look at what is going on.
Petre Jones is a GP, trainer and course organiser in east London
Dispute help and advice
• BMA Mediation Service
0870 6060 828
• LMC secretariat
• Specialist solicitors such as:
Hempsons www.hempsons.co.uk RadcliffesLeBrasseur www.rlb-law.com
• Partnerships in Practice by Petre Jones,
Radcliffe Publishing, ISBN-13 9781857753592