A Guide for New and Junior Attorneys for How to Deal with Jerks, Screamers, and Other Difficult People in a Law Firm

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Jerks. Idiots. Tyrants. You won’t get all the way through your professional life without working for someone you don’t see eye-to-eye with, any more than you got through school without having a teacher here and there that you couldn’t stand. What do you do when you work for somebody who drives you ape-dung? That’s what we’ll be talking about in this chapter.
If there’s only one thing you take away from this chapter, it’s this: There’s only one person whose behavior you can control, and it’s you. That bit of wisdom comes from my favorite radio shrink, Dr. Joy Browne. And boy, it’s really useful in any situation where you’re dealing with someone who makes you want to scream. You can’t do a single thing about anybody else’s behavior. Whether they’re rude or boorish or in any way unreasonable, you’ve got to focus on your reaction to that behavior. That’s not to say that there aren’t some measures you can take to try and make your working relationship more harmonious, but it does focus your attentions on the area where they can do the most good.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what we’ll talk about here. We’ll start out by talking about some things you have to keep in mind when you go to work, and the kind of people you’ll work with. We’ll talk about sizing people up. And we’ll wind up discussing how you have to deal with people who make you nuts, both in the moment and thereafter. Let’s get started!
I don’t believe that the world is full of jerks and idiots. But there are certainly a few of them wandering around, and the larger an organization you work for, the more likely it is you’ll work with one (or more) of them. I love the Dilbert comic strip, and the pointy-headed boss. In one of the strips, the boss is in a meeting with Dilbert, and in front of their colleagues, the boss responds to an idea of Dilbert’s by sneering: “Whose shoe did you scrape this off of?”
In talking to lawyers all over the country for this book, I heard tons of stories about supervisors who are just unbelievable. At one firm, a partner called one of his associates from a plane, screaming into the phone, “Get my meal changed!” At another firm, a partner in a fit of pique threw his office furniture through an upper-story window. At yet another firm, a female associate went to the ladies room, only to hear an irate voice in the hallway screaming: “Get out here! I need you right now!” It was her supervisor. At one large firm, an associate was going away with his wife for a much-needed weekend in the country. At 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon, a partner, known for pulling this same schmuck routine on every associate, tells this particular associate, “I have to speak on Monday about the impact of this new statute on the telecommunications industry. I’ll need about sixty pages. Have it on my desk by Monday morning.” The associate fumed, knowing that the partner wouldn’t read it, he’d be drunk on the plane, and he’d wind up improvising. He also knew that the partner knew he was going away for the weekend, that the speaking engagement had been planned weeks before, and it was a false emergency just to pull his chain. So the associate wrote twenty pages Friday night, and then he wrote, “Improvise, motherf*****r,” and after that wrote forty pages of random words over and over again. The partner never noticed.
Ideally you’ll never work for any of these charm school graduates. But the fact is, you’ll find people in any organization who are varying degrees of “hard to work for.” As Boston University’s Betsy Armour says, “You need to be a grown-up! Not everybody will be warm and fuzzy. There will be yellers and screamers.” One of the most difficult things about being a new lawyer is that you’re expected to bend, to be flexible. You should never tolerate behavior that is unethical, harassing or discriminatory. But when it comes to work styles— people who are yellers or screamers or hyper-critical or whatever-^you’ve got to expect it. It’ll happen. We’ll talk about how to deal with it, but realize that it’s out there. Here’s what you have to realize about dealing with difficult supervisors:
1. Don’t rely on other people’s views in forming your own opinion about your supervisor.
One partner advises, “You’ll find people who are labeled as screamers or unpleasable or unreachable. Take those comments with a grain of salt. Make up your own mind.” Remember that everybody filters the world through their own particular prism. Maybe the person somebody else finds prickly you find intellectually stimulating. Maybe there’s something in the chemistry between them that isn’t true for you. We all know people who rub us the wrong way but leave other people unmoved. Don’t pick up other people’s prejudices. As one experienced attorney says, “Don’t be afraid of the partner with the loudest bark! That person may be the first one to recognize good work and stick by you. Just because they yell a lot doesn’t make them mean-spirited.” File what people say about other people, anticipate that you might find what they say is true, but don’t tell yourself that you’ve got an accurate snapshot of anybody based on comments from other people.
2. Their behavior isn’t directed at you.
If someone’s yelling “You idiot!” at you, it’s hard to tell yourself that it’s not personal! But the fact is, people’s behavior has everything to do with their own background, what’s going on in their own life, and very little to do with you. You’ll find people who will disappoint you, make you angry, make you want to cry, but most of the time, they don’t mean to—it’s just the way they are. As one experienced attorney points out, “Don’t take it personally if you don’t get along with a partner! Realize that partners’ personality flaws are basically their own problem. If a partner is an unreasonable tyrant, you won’t be the first to discover it. The world is full of unreasonable tyrants, however, and a law firm is not exempt—partners and clients alike!”
So when somebody yells at you or treats you badly, don’t immediately assume that there’s something wrong with you. Their attitude likely has nothing whatsoever to do with you.
3. Recognize the personality flaws that make them the way they are.
If somebody is a jerk, take a step back and think about how awful it must be to go through life having people hate you and say nasty things about you behind your back. Instead of inspiring anger in you, they should really inspire pity because somebody who’s a jerk is truly pathetic. And there’s always something driving their jerk-ism. For instance, people who are hypercritical like to demean other people because it makes them feel superior. Well-adjusted people don’t have to be critics or bullies. We’ll talk in a minute about how to deal with certain personality types, but for now, just remember: it’s a flaw of theirs that makes them intolerable. And that’s kind of sad.
4. Recognize that being a good supervisor requires a unique blend of skills—which most people don’t have.
Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying, “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.” Being a really good boss requires a magic blend of skill, personality, and knowledge that a lot of people don’t possess. Giving clear instructions, providing excellent feedback, mentoring—that doesn’t describe everybody in the Universe. Apart from anything else, lawyers aren’t trained to be managers. You went to law school. You know that. Lawyers aren’t trained to be managers any more than law school professors are trained to teach. (I am not going there!) So cut your boss a bit of slack. What you attribute to malevolence could at least in part be bad managing.
5. Rest assured that if somebody is truly a jerk, everybody in the office knows it.
You may feel as though the jerkiness of your boss is a secret, but it’s not. Everybody in every organization knows who the jerks are. As one lawyer explained it, “I love my firm, but there are people here that I don’t care for. Some people don’t fit in but they have a big book of business. They’re jerks, people have run-ins with them. On the hiring committee their reviews of their associates are totally ignored, because everybody knows that they’re impossible. It’s obvious that when they have a problem with associates, it’s their problem and not the associates’’. But they’re not going anywhere—not as long as they continue to harpoon big clients.”
B. What You Can Do about Working for a Jerk and Why "Yeah, Well, You Can Kiss My Ass" Is Not a Wise Strategy
What we’ll go over in this section are coping mechanisms that will help you work for anybody you can’t stand. We’ll talk about what you should do “in the moment” (and what you should avoid doing), and what you can do in the longer term. And yes, we’ll even talk about the possibility of quitting your job. Sometimes it comes to that. But let’s talk about everything else you should do before you pull the ripcord on your job!
1. Ask yourself the $64,000 question: “Could it be me?”
When you work for somebody you can’t stand, the most understandable thing in the world is to point the finger and say, “It’s them). It’s them!” And maybe it is. But the most vital step you can take, before you start offloading blame, is to look and see if there’s any truth in what they say to you or about you, and see if there’s anything in the way you behave or in your perceptions that contribute to the situation. The fact is, when people push your buttons, you need to remember that they’re your buttons. Nobody else can make you feel stupid or guilty or incompetent. They can try; but they require you as a co-conspirator to succeed. As Harvard’s Mark Weber says, “Whenever you have an intense reaction to someone, you need to ask, ‘What does it bring up in me? Why am / reacting this way?”’
I’m not going to get Freudian on you—I don’t care if you have dreams about hot dogs chasing donuts through tunnels—but I do want to point out what’s going on when you interact with your boss. Simply put, your mind isn’t a camera. It’s a filter. It filters the world through the lens of your own experience. When you react to your boss, you’re reacting to other authority figures in your life—that is, your parents. You come to your job with messages from your entire life. Some of those messages are positive, and some aren’t. The first thing you need to be conscious of is that you had this “training” and you need to figure out how constructive or destructive that training was. Once you’re aware of why you react the way you react to your boss, you can change everything.
I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who grew up the youngest in a large family, with really critical older siblings. Every time she piped up with an observation or idea when she was a kid, she’d be laughed at. Now, at work, any criticism at all makes her crazy, no matter how small it is. But it’s not the person who’s criticizing her that she’s responding to. It’s her family. Think about the things that make you nuts, and look at that baggage you bring to work to see if you’re responding to something you brought in, not what’s there. In every relationship you have for the rest of your life, you’ll always be happier if you go through this exercise. At work, it can make an intolerable relationship with your boss so much easier to handle!
2. How to handle yourself “in the moment.” Count to ten. Remain calm!
When someone’s baggin’ on you, the worst thing you can do is to respond in kind. As Hendrie Weisinger writes in Emotional Intelligence At Work, “If someone berates you, your gut will tell you to strike back, stoking the fire and making the person even more angry with you. Does that help you? No!” One experienced attorney adds, “You won’t win a battle with that person! Having to deal with jerks is why God invented Prozac.”
You’ve got to restrain yourself. Imagine one of those zippers that Michael Keaton used to zip Geena Davis’ lips closed in Beetlejuice. No matter how you feel, do not say what’s on your mind. Bite your tongue. Count to ten. If you’re around other people when your supervisor tears you a new one, never show anything but respect for him/her, even though (s)he’s clearly not acting in a way that deserves it. If you shout back, you’ll lose the empathy of your colleagues even if they agree with you. If you take it like a (wo)man, they’ll be on your side. Speak calmly. Take deep breaths. As soon as you can, go to the john and dab water on your face and wrists. Close your office door and cry. But never, ever, ever let them see you sweat.
New associate at a large firm. After receiving a verbal lashing from a particularly hostile partner, he resists the urge to defend himself or fight back or even interrupt. Instead, after allowing this notoriously abusive man to rant and rave until he is red in the face, the young associate simply looks up casually from his desk and responds, "Duly noted." The partner is speechless. He turns and leaves. There's noth­ing else to say!
If you are alone with the person who’s having a hissy fit, one experienced attorney recommends that you “Try the techniques that your parents used on you when you were having a tantrum. Either leave the room, saying ‘I’ll be back when you calm down,’ or ask, ‘Are you feeling all right?’ or ‘Can I get you a drink of water?’”
The bottom line is that in the moment you’re being yelled at, you don’t want to respond in kind. If it turns out that there’s a pattern of behavior that marks your boss as a bully, we’ll talk about how you deal with that. But when the tongue-lashing is going on, don't react.
3. Handling a jerk-y boss when the storm has passed
Nobody, no matter how much of a jerk, is a complete tool all the time. How do you handle a relationship of any length with a really difficult supervisor?
a. Don’t hyperbolize the problem. You’ll make it insoluble!
As Dr. Joy Browne says, “Don’t hyperbolize situations. Don’t tell yourself, ‘He’s the worst boss,’ ‘She’s the biggest jerk,’ ‘This will never work.’ When you do that, you turn problems into obstacles. Don’t do it! You can solve problems.” There’s always a way to resolve a situation, whether it’s with the person directly, recruiting other people’s help, or making a change elsewhere in the office or even outside of it. But don’t jump to step “Z” without couching the problem in your mind to make it as easy to handle as possible!
b. Address them directly. Don’t badmouth them behind their back at work.
When you’ve got a problem with a superior, don’t fall into the trap of lacing them up and down behind your superior’s back—not at the office, anyway. (You can rant all you want to your family and friends outside of work.) Griping at the office will inevitably get back to them, and just fan the flames. Even if it doesn’t, you don’t know who’s friends with whom. As one experienced attorney points out, “You may think your boss is a jerk, but if you badmouth them behind their back, you have to assume that the person you can’t stand is the best friend of the next person you’ll work for.” On top of that, when you talk to other people, you start applying labels. As soon as you’ve said “He’s a jerk” or “She’s an idiot,” you won’t move past those characterizations. Labeling effectively stops you from coming up with a solution to the problem.
Instead, give them a chance to solve the problem with you. It doesn’t matter that you’re not the cause of the problem; you’ve got more to gain by fixing it. You’ll often find that just taking them on will elevate their respect for you! Sit down face to face, rid your voice of anger or criticism, and speak matter-of-factly. Don’t raise your voice, even if the superior raises his/hers. Speak clearly about what’s bothering you, and be specific—cite comments and behavior, and if you have proposals for what you’d like to see change, bring them up. Be sure to couch your comments respectfully; if possible, cite things you like about working for them as well as things you don’t like (I realize it might take an effort!).
New lawyer at a government agency. His boss had been out of the office when he started. The first day the boss came back to the office, instead of introducing himself, he walked over to the new lawyer, and said, "What the hell has been going on here? Take care of this fax!" No introduction, no nothing. He was apparently angry about something that hadn't been done in his absence, and took it out on the new guy. The new lawyer took care of the fax, and went to his boss's office to tell him. He walked in and closed the door behind him, and said calmly, "I took care of this, as you requested. But we need to find a way to work together that treats me with respect." The lawyer reported, "After that, we became good friends. He was testing me, that's all."
New associate, large West Coast firm: "My supervisor was a real bastard. He made a point of giving me work every Friday after-noon at 5 o'clock. It wouldn't be a big project, and it wouldn't be time-sensitive, but he always wanted it done on Friday because he was always in the office first thing Saturday morning. And that would mean I'd have to stay every Friday until midnight. I got to the point I was just shaking with anger. Finally, I calmed myself down and went to his office and said, 'Would it be all right if I checked with you on Fridays at lunchtime to see if you have any work that needs to be completed before the end of the day? I'm staying until midnight on Fridays trying to complete your Friday assignments.' I was completely unprepared for his reaction. He was completely uncomprehending about what he was doing. I don't think it ever dawned on him what his Friday afternoon assignments were doing to me! He had no problem with the change. Telling him about it was all I had to do. I can't believe now that I almost quit my job over that."
New associate at a large firm. He's working with a tough corporate partner, and the partner keeps berating him, "You idiot! Don't you know anything?" It's getting to him. He sits down with the partner and says, "I know I'm disappointing you, but I need some guidance from you about what I can do better. I want to learn from you. But I can't do that if all you ever tell me is that I don't know anything." As the associate reports, "It turns out that this guy assumed I knew how corporate deals worked. I didn't know anything about it. Once I explained that to him, he explained it all to me. 'This is how you lay out papers, this is how the signatures work ....' It was great. It wasn't easy to face him down, but it made me realize he wasn't such a tough supervisor after all."
c. Admit straight out to your supervisor what your “buttons” are.
If your boss harshly criticizes you over something that’s a particularly sore point with you, tell them about it. For instance, maybe you’re painfully shy, but you really want to be a great litigator. It takes all of the confidence you can muster to stand up in court and speak, even if all you’re doing is asking for a continuance. If your boss criticizes you about it, say, “I know you couldn’t possibly know this, but I’m naturally a very shy person. I’m doing what I can to overcome it, and I’d really like your advice about speaking with more confidence. But when you criticize me without offering suggestions, it really makes me feel bad.” As one experienced attorney points out, “When somebody pushes your buttons, one of the best ways to go is to admit vulnerability. They can’t push your buttons if you get there first.”
d. Change your communication style to suit your boss.
It may be that you and your boss lock horns because you communicate differently. Modify what you do to make it easier on both of you! If they’re terse and matter-of-fact and you like to talk things out, learn to get to the point more quickly so that you can be in and out of their office in a hurry. As one experienced attorney says, “You need to acknowledge different skills! People have different communication styles. It doesn’t mean your boss hates you because (s)he communicates differently than you do!”
Maybe someone is sarcastic and rude in person, so you e-mail them to minimize your contact with them. One lawyer says that, “The first partner I worked for was totally lacking intact and diplomacy. I hated working with him. Then somebody recommended to me, ‘Don’t ask him questions in person. Send him memos so that he can respond in writing ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
e. Look “past the drink.” That is, see if you can find the valuable advisor behind the horrible facade.
One lawyer talked about having a difficult boss, saying that, “Even though this guy was really tough, I knew that he was really smart and I could learn a lot from him. He was just a loose cannon. I used to cringe when my phone would ring and I’d see that the call was coming from his extension. But I came to realize that what made him so prickly was the fact that he was so smart he was always seventeen steps ahead of everybody else, and it frustrated him. He lacked tact and diplomacy but he was always right. I told myself, ‘You might not like the way he says it, but look past it to the substance of what he says.’ I wound up learning a tremendous amount from him.”
f. Don't avoid your boss just because you can't stand him/her.
It’s human nature to avoid painful situations. But you’re making a mistake if you avoid your boss just because (s)he’s a jerk. As long as (s)he’s your supervisor—and we’ll talk in a minute about how to get out of that situation!—(s)he’s got a considerable amount of control over you. As one experienced attorney says, “New associates often brag about their success in ‘avoiding’ partners with whom communication is difficult. While it’s true that you need to work harder to communicate with attorneys who are shy or easily bothered, don’t take the path of least resistance. Find a way to stay in constant touch.” That’s where e-mails and memos can be useful. If you don’t like face-to-face contact with them, you don’t have to do that But you have to do something.
g. Find a quality that you like about the person you can't stand.
You might be thinking, “Find a quality I like? About him? I can’t stand anything about him!” Aw, come on. There must be something. I don’t care if your supervisor is proud of her bowling or he’s a great fly fisherman or she knows all about local judges. Compliment them about something that they’re proud of, and ask for their help regarding that quality. If you’re also a fisherman, ask about using a certain kind of lure. When you’re working on a case, ask for advice about dealing with a particular judge. You get the point. Many times you can defang a man-eating lawyer by looking for a point of particular pride, and acknowledging it.
h. If the problem with your boss is that (s)he’s a control freak, play into it
If your boss wants to know every jot and tittle of what you do, then play it that way. This is just a matter of flexibility on your part. It might drive you crazy, but copy your boss on everything, give him/her a complete log of your time on a daily basis—whatever it takes. If you do as I suggest in the “Getting Organized” section of “Getting Off On The Right Foot,” you’re papering the world anyway. It’s not that big a deal to add another copy for your boss!
i. Solicit other people’s help in dealing with your boss—but do it tactfully.
You can’t just go to other people in the office and say, “How the hell am I supposed to put up with that jag-off?” one experienced attorney says, “Be tactful! Don’t do anything to smear your own name. Be diplomatic. Your reputation is more on the line than theirs!” Instead, say to people, “Maybe it’s just me, but I could really use some advice on working with ...” or “I really want to do a good job for X. Could you help me out with some tips about giving him the kind of work he wants?” As I’ve mentioned before, if somebody is a pain in the butt, everybody in the office knows it. Ask other associates for advice about dealing with him or her. If you have a mentor, that’s another good resource. And you might even consider asking the person’s secretary for tips. As one experienced attorney says, “A difficult person’s secretary can tell you if he’s having a bad day, or the best time of day to contact him.”
j. If tact and diplomacy and tips you get from other people don’t soften your supervisor’s stance, (s)he’s just a bully. If you’re told, ‘Just deal with it any way you can, (s)he’s just a jerk,’ then throw caution to the wind. As long as (s)he’s not in a position to fire you, take him/her on. (S)he’ll never respect you otherwise.
Most people respond if you approach them tactfully. If you sit down and talk directly with them, behaving calmly and rationally, they’ll typically stop treating you badly. But if they don’t, what you’re dealing with is a bully. They’re pretty easy to spot. If you ask them for specific examples of what it is that they don’t like about your work and they can’t give you sensible answers, then what you’re talking about is someone who intentionally crushes people and can’t take personal responsibility for their problems. If you are silent to a bully, you’ll only get bullied more. Bullies won’t back down unless you stand up to them. And everybody agrees that even though you need to be flexible, you do not have to tolerate an abusive situation. And that’s what bullies put you into.
What should you do? If the person in question is sufficiently powerful to fire you—it’s a partner, for instance—then you should move on to talking to other people about being transferred to another supervisor or office. But if it’s not—if it’s a senior associate, for example, or you really like the work and don’t want to make a move, and everybody has said, ‘You’ve got to put up with it. Everybody knows he’s a jerk. Do whatever you have to do’—then you should take action.
The next time the bully berates you, stand up to them. Stand up—literally. It’s harder to intimidate a person who’s standing up. Then calmly, slowly, and firmly, use “you” statements. “You need to show me respect when you speak with me ... ” “You need to calm down...” “You might get away with this with other people, but you won’t with me... ” “Your behavior is out of line.” The “I” statements that you use with anyone other than a bully won’t work. “I feel let down when you ...” “I’m hurt when you ...” That doesn’t work. Bullies don’t care about your feelings. That’s what makes them bullies. If you use “you” statements, bullies back off.
Taking on a bully is a high-risk strategy. It may be your exit strategy. But if you otherwise like your job and don’t want to leave, it may be the only thing you can do to restore some semblance of sanity in your work life!
k. If things don’t get better, ask for a reassignment (if the organization is large enough) or consider quitting (if it’s not). But don’t make quitting the first option you try!
As the partner at one large firm points out, “With a firm like ours, we can reassign personalities. There’s somebody to get along with everybody. There are different ‘partner flavors.’” Furthermore, employers really don’t want you to leave. They make a big investment in training you, and they’d rather know that you’re miserable and want a change than to hear you say, “I’m handing in my resignation.”
If you’ve gone through every possibility of working with your supervisor—you’ve checked your own baggage, you’ve tried talking to them directly, you’ve asked other people for advice—and nothing works, then there’s no shame in requesting a transfer. People can’t possibly look at you as the source of a personality problem if you’ve behaved professionally in trying to resolve the situation. But if all of your efforts have failed, then you’re left with no choice. Don’t let a bad relationship with a supervisor taint your work so badly that you feel compelled to leave.
If your employer is small and you don’t have any other options, then you may have to quit if the relationship is bad enough. If your boss makes you miserable, you’re probably not learning a lot from him or her. Get your ducks in a row, and follow the advice in the chapter called “Being Your Own Career Coach,” so that you can move on to something that you really do enjoy!

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