Intervening with the 'abrasive' attorney

Issue November 2013

Q: As managing partner of a fairly large law firm, I have on more than one occasion had to arrange to intervene with a firm employee (or partner) whose drinking was getting out of hand and affecting performance, client impressions or both. In some cases (including with LCL's input), the upshot has been referral to a rehab followed by gradual reintegration into the life of the firm.

The source of my current concern, however, is a partner-track lawyer who, as far as I can tell, has no drug or alcohol problem, and does not seem to be suffering from depression or anxiety, but who has nevertheless managed to alienate both clients and peers through an interpersonal style that can be quite abrasive and can come across as disrespectful. I'm not sure that he has any idea how others react to him (or, if he does, that he cares about it). Yet he is extremely sharp in his legal work, and has created very profitable outcomes that were greatly appreciated by clients, so we certainly would hate to lose his skills. Is there any kind of intervention that might be applicable in a situation of this sort?

A: You're right that in some ways clearly identifiable problems like addictions are easier (though far from easy) to address. Rehab is a kind of treatment that can be required as a kind of package, and monitoring progress is simpler when measured by means of urine tests, "sick" days, slurred speech, etc. Even depression and anxiety tend to be manifested in some observable ways, not to mention that individual sufferers may report on their level of distress.

The picture becomes murkier when addressing longstanding characteristics that might be regarded as "personality disorders" or, in some cases, "wired-in" impairments in connection and attunement to others (such as Asperger's Syndrome or so-called Nonverbal Learning Disorder). Either of these types of issues (and some people have a bit of both) can include significant limitations in the ability to empathize with others or to be sensitive to one's interpersonal impact. Such gaps in social functioning are not correlated (either positively or negatively) with intelligence or competence, so some of the same people who make poor impressions on others may do excellent work.

To the extent that one can intervene in such cases, an initial step might be to get a detailed clinical evaluation. While a clinical interview by a skilled diagnostician is invaluable, other kinds of useful information (that may not be accessible via interview) can be gleaned from various kinds of psychological testing (normally performed by doctoral-level psychologists who have specialized in assessment). The results of evaluation may suggest (a) certain types of treatment, (b) executive or workplace-oriented coaching and/or (c) reconfiguring the lawyer's job description in such a way as to maximize benefits from his areas of strength while reducing social interaction in his professional role.

Our suggestions would be different in the case of a more acute behavioral picture, as opposed to the longstanding traits that you seem to be describing. For that reason, although we've given you an overview of some possibilities, it's always a good idea to confer with an LCL clinician or other trusted behavioral health resource (in some detail, and in person, if feasible) before launching into a course of action. LCL's services are both confidential and free to Massachusetts lawyers.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Questions for LCL may be mailed to LCL, 31 Milk St., Suite 810, Boston, MA 02109 or called in to (617) 482- 9600. LCL's licensed clinicians will respond in confidence. Visit LCL online at