Dealing With Toxic Law Partners

Have you got one of these at your firm?

  • A lawyer who likes to work out his stress by getting angry and yelling verbal abuse at junior lawyers and staff members.
  • A lawyer who yells vulgarities at opposing counsel at high volume so that everyone on the floor can hear.
  • A lawyer who takes credit for other people’s ideas or work product.
  • A lawyer who expects everyone else to follow the rules but takes pleasure in breaking them because he’s got seniority.
  • A lawyer who regularly has the legal team working nights and weekends because they are disorganized and only delegate at the last minute.

I could go on.

When I google what to do about a toxic law firm partner all the articles talk about how to find a new job.

Which makes sense because the problem is mostly dealt with by lawyers and staff voting with their feet and leaving.

There is another solution: dare I say, a better one. Firm leadership need to walk the talk and have a tough conversation.

“John, throwing the stapler at the wall and yelling is not on. If that is who you are and how you want to practice law, that is your prerogative, but you can’t practice here.

My colleague Judy Hissong with NESSO Strategies talks about “persperational values.” These are the values you demonstrate through your actions. They show up in the rewarded behaviors, your firm’s compensations system, how you lead the firm, and how you practice law.

Aspirational values are the ones that might appear on the firm website and recruiting materials, but if not acted on, they are meaningless.

How law firms deal with toxic behavior is where the actual values show up.

Is your firm acting on its values?

How are these values showing up concerning handling the office bully?

If your firm tolerates the disruptive and abusive behavior of a bully because he is a big biller, what does this say about your firm?

Non-action is a choice. It makes a firm complicit.

Why do firms tolerate these people?

Sometimes it’s about avoiding the discomfort of dealing with the problem.

Sometimes the noxious person has high billings, and the firm doesn’t want to risk losing the revenue.

This leads to the question; can someone change their behavior?

The short answer is yes.

The idea that people can’t change is quite simply wrong.

One of the granddaddies of the coaching profession Marshall Goldsmith puts it this way in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There:

“Fortunately, there’s a simpler way to achieve the goal of “being nicer.” All you have to do is “stop being a jerk.” It doesn’t require much. You don’t have to think of new ways to be nicer to people. You don’t have to design daily tasks to make over your personality… All that is required is the faint imagination to stop doing what you’ve done in the past – in effect to do nothing at all. (Goldsmith 39)

Hey toxic partner, it is that simple. Make a shortlist of the things you won’t do. Put it on an index card and carry it with you.

  • I won’t talk over people in meetings.
  • I won’t take credit for other people’s work.
  • I won’t bellow swear words in the office.

You get the idea.

If the lawyer can’t handle practicing law without yelling at staff, they can move someplace else.

I know of one national firm that has instituted what I would describe as a no “jerks” policy. The firm has steadily removed lawyers who weren’t able to comply with the firm’s professionalism standards. This has had a very positive impact on the staff and lawyers working lives and firm morale overall.

Weeding out the people who don’t align with the firm’s vision and values doesn’t just make the work environment better it’s good for business too. Good to Great and many other business books like it have proven this with detailed research.

Much that ails the legal profession is within the ability of lawyers to positively influence and transform. Creating collaborative and collegial workplaces is entirely possible for courageous lawyers and their firms to accomplish. Instituting a “no jerks” policy at your law firm could be a great place to start.

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