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A Cautionary Handmaiden’s Tale

Margaret started working with senior partner Lawrence right out of her articles. In her first years of call she worked with many lawyers at the firm, but slowly Lawrence commandeered more and more of her time until he provided the majority of her billable work. Lawrence had churned through many associates before Margaret. She was the first one who was good enough to meet his exacting standards and the only one who would put up with his daily criticisms of her work. Lawrence kept her apart from his clients. Even as Margaret increased in seniority he held tightly to his client relationships and refused her access. Margaret’s confidence eroded over time, as did her enjoyment of her legal work.

I have known many associates such as Margaret. They are handmaidens trapped into servitude to toxic senior lawyers. I call these senior lawyers “vortexes” because they suck the energy and confidence right out of the young professionals who work with them.

I have known both male and female vortexes but in my experience he will most often be a senior lawyer commanding a robust practice. He is difficult to work with. He has a track record of churning through associates until at last he arrives upon his chosen one. He promises the young associate the opportunity to learn and hone legal skills. He offers a full or almost full plate of work so that billable targets are easily met. The vortex holds out the promise of good things to come if only you dedicate your young and not so young years in legal service to his or her practice.

Not all young lawyer – senior lawyer practice pairings are a problem. In fact most are not. This relationship is positive when the senior lawyer is relatively pleasant to work with, or to put it bluntly, not a toxic dictator.

It works when the senior lawyer actively engages the junior with clients so that the latter is able to develop these relationships.

It works when the senior lawyer is confident and unthreatened by the junior’s success.

A partner-vortex is someone very different:

  • He is highly critical. He may have anger issues. He grinds a junior’s confidence down.
  • He doesn’t share. He wants the best of his junior’s work but not her name on any documents going out. The clients belong to him.
  • He tells other partners not to give his junior work because her time belongs to him. He desires an exclusive or almost exclusive relationship.
  • He holds out the carrot of practice succession but takes no active steps to start that transition. No lawyer owns the clients. Clients are always free to choose where to take their work. When a junior has no opportunity to demonstrate value to the vortex’s clients they are likely to move their business when he retires.

Handmaidens such as Margaret, are often female associates, but not always. Male associates can also fall into this trap. The handmaiden is smart, organized, and her strengths compensate for the partner-vortex’s weaknesses. She likely has some or all of the following attributes:

  1. Margaret works hard. She is driven to do her best and produce excellent work. She might also be driven to please the important people in her life.
  2. Deep down Margaret knows she is smart and talented but most of the time she forgets this. Instead she is most often focused on her perceived weaknesses and failings.
  3. Margaret is comfortable keeping her head down and working hard. That is what she knows best. That is the strategy that earned her top marks in school and has served her well up to now. She is perhaps not so comfortable with the idea of marketing and business development and has no clear idea about how she would ever grow her own practice.
  4. Margaret is also able to tough it out. Her work ethic is matched by a high tolerance for toxicity. A friend once described this to me as the “suck it up buttercup” super power.

I was careful in the above not to use such words as hapless, or victim, because most often young associates such as Margaret, or their male counterparts, are smart, hard working and talented people, but who nonetheless can find themselves duped.

What sucks them in? It could be a number of things. Some I have seen are:

  1. The promise of succession. The path seems to provide an answer to all the thorny practice-building challenges. The thinking is “if I just work closely with this successful older lawyer one day I will inherit his practice.”
  2. A form of ego gratification: “No one else besides me has managed to tough it out with the curmudgeon.”
  3. Being a people pleaser. The young lawyer is driven to do her very best in all situations and thinks that if she can just focus on upping her performance the situation will eventually resolve itself.
  4. Learning opportunities. The young lawyer is likely seeking mentorship and the opportunity to do some quality legal work.
  5. Lack of confidence. The young lawyer may not perceive her strengths and is fearful of trying to make a change.
  6. Finally, related to the above points, working with the vortex provides a steady flow of work.

If you are a handmaiden to a partner-vortex, please take action. These situations rarely resolve themselves on their own. You have a long career ahead of you. Take steps to move your practice to a more supportive foundation.

Here are three tips for breaking free:

  1. Take stock. It is time to seek a fresh perspective on the situation. Reach out to someone at your local Lawyers Assistance Program, to a coach, or to another such professional. Connect with a trusted senior mentor or colleague at your firm. Talk about your situation. With assistance from friends or a professional advisor, conduct an inventory of your personal and professional strengths. Polish your resume.
  2. Diversify. Break free of the vortex’s hold over your practice. Identify some other partners you would like to work with at the firm and begin some internal marketing to draw this work to you. If you have a mentor at the firm you can trust then confide in them and ask for their support in helping you to diversify.
  3. Create distance. If the situation has gone on for too long, if you find yourself increasingly stressed out and miserable about the situation, or if you don’t have the firm’s support it may be time to make a change. Leaving your firm might be the best step to get distance from the vortex. Consult a trusted advisor to help you think through your next steps.

And please take it from me; you don’t need to suffer the abuses of a controlling dictator in order to grow a practice. I have worked with all kinds of lawyers with a wide variety of strengths and know that smart strategy and action helps grow practices effectively for most anyone who sets their mind to it.

Just as I have known many lawyers trapped in a working relationship with a partner-vortex so to have I seen these same lawyers escape the trap and build rewarding and successful legal practices. My parting thought for you is this – take action. The sooner you take steps to exit the relationship with the partner the sooner you can start moving towards your brighter future.

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