You will at one time or another deal with a lawyer bully. It may be opposing senior counsel or it may be someone you work with directly. It is an issue that is, unfortunately, not dealt with in law schools given the general lack of focus on practical lawyering skills. Lawyer bullies can not only make your practice difficult, but they may even lead you to conclude that you’re not cut out to be a lawyer. It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t let a lawyer bully push you around, but it’s much more difficult to put theory into practice when you have someone screaming at you, constantly berating you or generally just making you feel like you’re incompetent.
There may be very little you can do to change the lawyer bully’s behaviour, but there are some things you can do to minimize the impact that it has on your life and, ultimately, your career.
- Do not respond in-kind. Screaming, yelling and flying off the handle may feel good in the moment and there are, no doubt, plenty of perfectly good reasons why you might feel justified in giving someone a “taste of their own medicine”, but as a young lawyer you cannot give in to these temptations. Senior Lawyer X may be known to be horrible to people, but usually people only put up with that stuff because they’re also known to be a great advocate. That’s not an excuse, it’s just life. As a junior lawyer, you have not established yourself and cannot expect others to give you the same latitude. It goes without saying that this also means that you should not, under any circumstances, take out your frustrations with senior lawyers on administrative staff. You don’t have a right to turn into a bully yourself.
- Develop patience. As an ambitious person, you may not be used to waiting or biding your time. You want what you want and you will get it when you want it, right? Well, it just doesn’t work that way in the legal profession. It will take at least 20 years before you’re really considered to be competent, so you might as well start developing a patient mindset early on in your career. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should become meek or docile in the face of egregious behaviour. What you should do is keep your client in the forefront of your mind and accept that you may have to deal with this person now in order to advance your client’s interests, but it won’t last forever. Develop coping mechanisms to limit the amount of interaction you have. This leads me to my next point:
- Practice Defensively. The principle here is the same as driving defensively. You don’t know what those other idiots on the road are going to do and you can’t control them anyway, so maintain your distance and speed at a reasonable level and steer clear of drivers who are distracted or otherwise don’t seem to know what they’re doing. In legal practice, this takes the form of having clear records of your interactions with someone (e.g. letters, emails , etc.). If someone insists on calling you and they shout abuse over the phone, take notes immediately after to document the time, date and nature of the call. If necessary, write down quotes of what they said that you found offensive. The Law Society of Upper Canada (and I would imagine most state bar associations) take civility very seriously and, while it would be improper to try to change someone’s behaviour by threatening to file a complaint, if you feel that someone’s conduct has really gone beyond the bounds of decency there are steps you can take to deal with it. The first step should be speaking with someone more senior in your office, if possible, to determine whether you’re in the right. If you don’t have anyone in your office to speak to, then you should call the Law Society’s confidential practice management helpline to get a professional opinion about the conduct you wish to complain about. Once you’ve got an opinion from the Law Society, you can determine what your next step should be. A word of caution though: civility is not just a requirement for those who you interact with. You also should not rush to file complaints for relatively trivial matters. We all have bad days sometimes and say or do things that we later regret. Look at the totality of the circumstances and try to give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt when possible. If there is no justifiable reason for continued harassment or abusive behaviour then you should not hesitate to take advantage of the resources available to you.
Obviously, these tips won’t shield you from ever working with or for someone who is completely unreasonable and difficult. However, they will help you build a reputation for being reasonable and for having integrity, and that is the best reputation any lawyer can hope to have among their colleagues.
NOTE: If you are being subjected to harassment of any kind and you find that it is impacting your ability to do your job well due to heightened emotional and mental stress, the Law Society has numerous, confidential resources to help you. You can speak with someone over the phone, in person or through email and it’s free. Do not let someone else’s bad behaviour end your career. Ask for help. It’s there for the taking.