If work climate is hostile, turn to senior partner

Issue December 2003

Q:I read with some concern your column in the October 2003 issue of the MBA Lawyers Journal. As a managing partner of our law firm, I have come to understand that the behavior exhibited by some partners toward associates is, indeed, inappropriate. The characteristics of "unpredictable, hostile, critical, belittling, even subtly threatening" behavior that the associate as described are very real, and I believe legitimately upsetting to associates. How can an attorney who cares deeply about his/her professional development not take this conduct personally? I would be very sorry to see any associate, including particularly an associate of this firm, believe that a distressed reaction to partner conduct of this nature is a problem with that associate's emotional or psychological makeup.

What I find most disheartening about these situations is that associates rarely call matters like this to the attention of anyone in the firm who might have the ability to affect a change in the working conditions. While the associate writing the letter has vented his or her feelings to "colleagues who sympathize but can't really help," I wonder if any of the colleagues are partners themselves with a seniority level sufficient to address the issue. I would certainly hope that an associate in my firm experiencing this level of anxiety would speak to me or some other member of our Executive Committee. Perhaps this is further advice that LCL can offer to associates who raise this kind of concern.

Very truly yours,
Lauren Jennings
Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP

A:We truly appreciate Ms. Jennings' response to our October column about an associate who described increasingly debilitating anxiety as a result of working under a partner who had become "unpredictable, hostile, critical and belittling." Because the firm was portrayed as accepting of the partner's behavior, we recommended that the associate seek to better understand the intensity of his/her reaction and to make any career decision from a more assertive, pro-active position.

Our experience suggests that corporate cultures that tolerate negative or abusive behavior among their personnel, including toward subordinates, are often not prone to self-correction and change, or to address complaints from those without significant status in the organization. We have sometimes been surprised by the degree of various types of inappropriate behavior that is tolerated from partners in law firms, especially those valued as "rainmakers." Associates generally interpret this behavior as consistent with firm practices and values, geared toward honing that adversarial and aggressive edge that presents the appearance of strength and confidence.

We endorse wholeheartedly your recommendation of raising the issue with a partner with sufficient seniority to take action, and we commend your firm for this approach. Often, associates perceive the choice to confront a superior's abusive behavior as a "career decision," fearing potential political fallout and even a foreclosed opportunity at that firm, having been perceived as weak and complaining. They struggle in the "sink or swim" atmosphere and strive to emulate their superiors who may appear to prioritize productivity over civility, balance, and personal well-being.

We would encourage firm partners/administrators to consider adopting a practice such as the one you describe. Ideally, it would be bolstered by a policy statement that advocates mutual respect and support, and outlines a process of problem solving and conflict resolution. If taken seriously by those at the top, such an approach could ultimately make for a stronger and better functioning firm. We also welcome any further feedback/commentary on this issue from readers.

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