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Dealing With Law Firm Bullies

This post is for law firm leaders as well as for senior managers. My last submission to SLAW focussed on ensuring you don’t alienate your law firm with your decision process. This one focusses on another barrier to firm success: bullies.

Cutting my teeth as a law firm marketer, I was very aware of law firm bullies. Managers (like a Marketing Manager or Director but really, anyone in a senior but non-lawyer position in a law firm) have lots of responsibility and there are high-expectations for our ability to get things done. But we have very little power. This makes us an easy target for bullies. They know our ability to either encourage their participation or fight back against their bullying is limited without exposing ourselves to accusations of insubordination, or unprofessionalism. But if you’ve been in a law firm long enough, you come to realize that it isn’t just the managers that can get bullied. Partners can be manipulated and even controlled by a cagey bully. See if you recognize any of these in your own firm…

  • They tend to ignore staff (or junior lawyers) unless they want something. Then they tend to be very dictatorial, as opposed to working with staff/lawyers to ensure that what they are asking for will actually get them what they need. This chips away at the respect that staff/lawyers ultimately have for the firm.
  • They hijack Partners’ meetings with their own agendas. Too often, a single Partner is able to hold up a major project that EVERYONE else agrees with. This is particularly true in law firms that like to lead by absolute consensus, but it’s also true of law firms with a weak leader.
  • They drag their heels implementing as a way of sabotaging programs they disagree with. Their aim is to make the process as painful (and unsuccessful) as possible…or just to remind you that they voted against it, so they certainly won’t be helpful.
  • They demand attention and service immediately; but NEVER respond immediately (or sometimes, at all) to requests made of them.
  • They are unresponsive and uninterested is firm management or marketing…until they suddenly want the firm to fund a pet cause or support an event for one of their clients. Then they expect absolute and immediate support as if their request was the most important one of the year.

For years, law firms held onto and protected their bullies – which were often big fee earners – as an unfortunate but necessary part of a Partnership. More recently, many firms believe they have adopted a no – – – -holes policy. It’s one thing to say that or have it on a law firm values statement; it’s quite another to back it up with real action. But you should. And here’s why.

1. Staff and lawyer retention.

Bullies make it more difficult to hold onto good staff – especially senior mangers. There are not enough trained firm administrators (Office Managers, Marketers, HR, IT, etc.) to meet law firm needs already. You don’t want to lose good people that, let’s face it, you may not be able to replace.

Bully Partners don’t usually reserve their bad attitudes for staff. They are likely behaving that way with lawyers, too. Again, in a tight Associate labour market, you don’t want to create any reasons for an Associate to leave. And you don’t want to train your younger lawyers to be bullies, either. But that’s precisely what tends to happen. Younger lawyers take their cue from bullies and start to mistake rudeness for management or leadership.

Bully Associates will develop a reputation with staff that will follow them through their entire career. In my early days as a marketer, I learned that the staff from an entire office had signed and submitted a petition to a young lawyer, asking them to become a better, nicer person to work with. Today, those staff members simply leave for a better job. Then word gets out about that law firm and it becomes more difficult to find good, qualified candidates willing to work there.

Cities aren’t as large as you might think. We all talk. We know who the jerks are. We know which firms protect their jerks.

2. Bullies establish firm culture.

It doesn’t matter what you say about your culture, or how you otherwise operate. The existence of bullies, and the firm’s tolerance with them, says it all. Too often, law firms see bullies as allowable exceptions to the rule. That’s a mistake. Like many entities, law firms are defined by their weakest links. Your bullies are certainly a weak link and will ultimately define who you are as a firm. Then, it doesn’t matter what you pay people, how many casual Fridays you have, or what your charitable giving program looks like.

3. Bullies stop firm progress.

In my experience, most bullies dislike change. They prefer an environment where they are in control, even if they control through a degree of chaos. So, they stand in the way of change. They might even tout this proudly. Competition (for talent as well as for clients) is enormous. Law firms today must be nimble. That can’t happen if someone is constantly throwing a wrench into discussions around change and progress. The firm ends up operating at its lowest common denominator. This is particularly frustrating for younger lawyers who believe in a more democratic process. As Associates (and especially those close to Partnership), their only fall-back is to vote with their feet. Others give up and to some degree, become complacent, doing the bare minimum needed and letting go of their passion for the law and their ambition for success.

So, how do you counteract bullies in your law firm?

  • Stop leading by absolute consensus. Lead through a more democratic process. Listen to naysayers – consideration of their concerns will help to build a better plan. Even engage them in the design and implementation process if you can. But don’t let them sabotage firm progress.
  • Make a firm-wide declaration on the attitudes you will not support as a firm. Then back those up by making hard decisions when needed. In other entities, new leaders will often demonstrate their commitment to a culture by making an early, tough decision. It lets everyone know what will and will not be tolerated. This doesn’t have to be termination of a Partner, but definitely a warning shot over the bow.
  • Ensure you are setting the right stage for future Partners by training your Associates on how to appropriately behave within the firm. This ranges from how to interact well with clients, to how to be a good team member, to how to respectfully manage staff.
  • When bullies persist regardless, there must be consequences. It might be an apology to the person harmed, a public apology to the firm, or it might additional be some form of penalty. For example, they might lose compensation points, or be removed from a leadership post. They might lose access to support staff, etc.

Understand what is at stake when you allow bullies to go unchecked. They might be good billers; but they might be killing your firm in other ways.

Comments

  1. Great insights! We have normalized the bully in law firm culture and sometimes lawyers perceive there’s no way to change it (not true). The High Conflict Institute has lots of resources, many free articles and podcasts, for people, including lawyers on dealing with people with highly conflict personalities. I wish I had known more about those techniques earlier in my career for dealing with bullies on the outside of the firm as well as the inside.

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