How Toxic Is Too Toxic?

I wish some law firms could come with a warning label; associate beware.

John worked at a firm with two partners who controlled every moment of his day. A six day in the office work week was enforced. On a daily basis he had to listen to demeaning comments made about his performance heard through the paper-thin office walls. On the outside the partners were respected, acknowledged as exemplary mentors, and admired. Inside the firm they were cruel, demanding, and controlling.

This is not an isolated incident. The worst offenders often take great pains to manage their professional reputations. They win awards. They are on important boards and committees. They cloak themselves in recognitions to safeguard themselves against being found out.

Who would believe a junior associate when they are so esteemed?

I wish I was exaggerating but I am not.

Less serious but also problematic behavior is the partner who hands off work to very junior associates and provides no supervision. Sink or swim is no way to handle delegation, the associate who cares deeply about doing good work is in fear of error, and the client is at risk of being poorly advised.

The behavior of these individuals takes a toll on the profession.

How do you know if you are dealing with a toxic partner?

  • The partner speaks negatively about others in front of you.
  • The partner asks you to do things or does things you recognise are unethical.
  • You are expected to figure out everything on your own, even though you are a junior with little experience.
  • The partner is highly sarcastic and/or rude.
  • The partner shouts and gets angry at you and/or addresses you with demeaning language.
  • The partner never notices or acknowledges your accomplishments.
  • The partner does not respect your boundaries and expects you to be available to work any day of the week and at any time of the day.

I could go on….

Here are some coaching questions to guide you in thinking through your next steps:

(1) Notice: What is the impact this partners behavior is having on you?

Notice the impact and use this knowledge to propel you into action. What would you tell a friend who was in this situation?

The most important thing to do once you identify a toxic person is to take steps to get some distance from them.

You have two options: Within a mid-sized or large law firm it can sometimes be possible to move your practice away from the partner. I have seen this successfully accomplished.

Or you can move your practice to a different firm.

(2) Has the experience of working with this partner affected your confidence? Are you feeling like you are trapped?

One of the most insidious consequences of working with toxic people is that they can drain away your confidence.

There is a cure for this. Get them out of your life. (You may be noticing a theme of this article.)

If you feel like you are lacking the confidence to take on a job hunt and transition, reach out to a counsellor or coach. There are counsellors who work with lawyers and who will help with job transitions. A counsellor or a coach can help you reconnect with your strengths and abilities.

(3) How much effort have you put into building your legal career? Think of the time spent in law school. Consider the concerted efforts you made to secure articles and your first job.

You deserve the opportunity to give your legal career a chance to grow and develop. This needs to be done in an environment that will support your learning and development.

Whatever you do, do not give up on law because of one bully or toxic law firm. Seek support for making a transition, either by stopping working with the toxic partner or changing firms. Get help, this is important. Mentors, counsellors, coaches can all be off assistance.

In my experience once you reach for help, you are likely to swiftly have a plan of action in place and a successful transition accomplished within a few months.

If you can’t survive one more week then a counsellor or a coach can help you make a plan for a swift exit.

If you are reading this article and are working with a toxic partner, please know that although we have never met, I care very much for you and your wellbeing. I urge you to speak with an advisor as soon as possible. This is the sort of problem that is best resolved in a team.

Reach out to the free counselling service active in your jurisdiction. They will be able to connect you with resources. Here is a list of these services for all Canadian Provinces courtesy of the Canadian Bar Association:

You can get out of this painful position. You may not see the path forward, but it is there in front of you. It begins with reaching out for support.


  1. This seems like very sensible advice. Do you think there is anything more that the profession or law societies should be doing to help juniors in this position? Is it possible to encourage healthy “ethical infrastructure” within law firms, so that power is not abused in the way you describe?