A patent law firm had been wrangling for two years as to whether or not patent engineers should be permitted to become partners in the firm. One faction felt that engineers should, while the other faction felt that partnership in a law firm was a privilege uniquely for lawyers. The issue became very divisive, with the office in one city taking the engineers’ position while the office in another city favored the “lawyers-only” status quo.

The situation had been brought to a head because an engineer with many years’ service (in the city that favored inducting engineers into the partnership) was about to leave if she could not be “cut in on the action.”


As I was about to enter the first session, the managing director pulled me aside. “Bill,” he whispered, “I know you’re pretty good at this stuff, but this is a really tough one. Every time we bring it up at the partners’ meeting, the temperature rises until the meeting actually breaks down. We have to stop the meeting and then move on to other items on the agenda. You know, we are lawyers, trained to resolve difficult issues, trained in mediation and in problem solving. Anyway, I’m not saying this to scare you, I’m telling you as a sign that if you cannot resolve this one, I will understand and our work with you will continue.”

“Thanks, Ed,” I offered. “Let’s see what happens.”

The critical mass for the issue involved thirteen lawyers in three cities hooked together by a teleconference call. I consider this a large group. But I can tell you that a critical mass has strict criteria, and thirteen lawyers was the number that it took in this case. The meeting progressed for two hours, which is as long as I allow. At the wrap-up of the meeting and after setting the date for the next session, the participants were giving their feedback of their impressions of the discussion, one by one, when one opined: “I don’t see where this is going. We’re just rehashing all the same old issues. It’s a waste of time! Caswell, where do you see this going?”

With my usual alacrity and candor, I said: “I haven’t a clue.”

Suddenly there was a commotion. “If you don’t have a clue, how are we supposed to be getting somewhere?” someone shouted.

“Let me rephrase that,” I recovered. “I have no idea where this will lead. I never do, and anyone who presumes to know does not understand the complexity of a group solution. However, what I do know is that the canoe is moving properly down the river; we are shooting every set of rapids that we are hitting without anyone falling out of the canoe. I also know we will reach the wide mouth of the river soon where the water will be much calmer. We’ll find out more next Friday.”

Someone mumbled, “We’ll see!”

The Results

At the following meeting, the thirteen lawyers and I were hard at it when, after one hour, a unanimous solution had been developed. (Solutions must always be unanimous; otherwise the result is not a solution but a compromise.) Feedback, to allow people uncomfortable with any aspect of the solution to offer their concerns, was initiated. Since there were no further concerns, I proposed we close down the meeting. Someone said, “No, you can’t do that. We’ve got an hour left–we’re on a roll. Let’s keep going.” “Yeah!” the excited school-like group chimed almost in unison. So, two other issues related to the newly admitted engineer-partners policy were decided and confirmed–salary and share aspects.

The cost to solve the problems was about $15,000, including all lawyers’ time at their full billing rates. The benefit of keeping six experienced engineers on staff could be measured in millions of dollars per year.