Business Law at Rocket Law

It’s Just Business: When Family Goes Pro

It’s Just Business: When Family Goes Pro

When your family’s ready to ‘go pro’ like the Harbaugh brothers, work-life balance can be even more complex.

Certainly one of the most unique aspects of this year’s Super Bowl is that it’s a family affair. Coaches Jim and John Harbaugh, brothers, will be facing off against each other as the head coaches of the competing teams. The sibling rivalry places other family members, such as their sister and parents, in a somewhat uncomfortable position as they have to work hard to appear neutral throughout the game. After all, while one of the brothers will walk away with the Lombardi Trophy, the other will have just lost their biggest game to date (neither has ever coached in the Super Bowl before).

The brothers themselves are in a tough position as well. Although competitive, they are close, and have admitted to having sought one another’s advice as coaches in the past when facing off against other teams. Yet sibling rivalry can make the stakes, emotionally and personally, much higher than ever before. To try to keep things cool, the Harbaughs reportedly met for a family dinner a few days before the game. One can imagine that it may have been a slightly uncomfortable dinner though. As John Harbaugh put it: “I can’t imagine what we would be able to talk about. What are you having? I don’t know. What are you having? It might not get past the menu.” Aside, from the family dinner, the siblings have said that they’ve tried to keep their communications to a minimum leading up to the Super Bowl.

It’s not uncommon for lawyers to have other family members in the industry as well–and to occasionally work alongside those family members on a professional level. Indeed, my first experience working in a law firm was for an occasionally tumultuous father and son practice in Dayton, Ohio. Subsequently, since becoming an attorney I’ve worked with a number of husband and wife duos as well. The boutique firm I worked at before becoming solo also included a brother-sister duo. Surprisingly, although all of the family teams I’ve worked with have been working together for the same practice, it didn’t always make it any easier for them to work with one another.

After all, in a business setting we’re often harder on family members than we’d be on other employees. Family members will say things to other family members that they’d never dream of saying to another employee. And, of course, sometimes the opposite can be true as well. We occasionally avoid stating hard truths to family members in order to protect their feelings. Whatever benefits this may have for the familial relationship, open and direct communication is essential for a healthy business. As a result, in order to work with family members effectively you have to find a comfortable balance between those extremes. The key is a commitment to mutual respect.

Establish boundaries regarding one another’s roles in your law practice or business. If you’re both attorneys, for example, be sure to clearly identify who is the lead attorney handling any given case. Once that is determined, it is important that each family member respects that person’s authority and decisions relating to that case. If you are working on the same cases, be sure to carve out specific responsibilities (i.e. who is responsible for discovery, who is responsible for hearings, and so forth). Once established, respect that division of labor.

It’s also important to try to keep your business relationship and family relationship separate. Like the Harbaughs, try to keep discussions at a family dinner away from business-related topics. At times that may be a tall order, but it’s important to try to maintain a balance in your relationship between the personal and the professional. This is especially true when emotions are running high.

While working alongside a family member can be difficult, it can also be a blessing. The trick is to being sensitive to the unique relationship you have with your family members. If you’ve worked alongside, or opposite of, a family member please share any wisdom you can provide in our comments section.


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