How to Handle the Bullying in Law Firms [TFLP182]

In this podcast episode, Sarah responds to a listener’s email about a recent episode where the discussion was about law firms and the narcissists that often run them. The listener wanted an additional discussion on the podcast about the bullying and abuse that goes on in law firms. 

Bullying in Law Firms is Common

Sarah spent a decade moving through different sections of the law, plus the recent work on Former Lawyer with many stories from other current and former lawyers. If anyone is going through this situation, it’s horrible and confusing. It’s hard even to understand what is happening at the moment. 

Much of the abuse involves lawyers being told their work isn’t good enough, but not in a constructive criticism way. There’s a difference between giving someone feedback in a way that they can take it and it can be useful, and then there is just being a jerk. Managing people requires skills, especially when it comes to giving feedback. 

Don’t Internalize This Bullying Behavior

So many lawyers strive for constant perfection. It’s just part of the job. The kind of abusive treatment that is dished out so often by leaders can be easy to internalize. You might be really hard on yourself that you aren’t perfect. We all have so many ways to improve, but you’re working so hard and care about getting things right, so you can’t let this feedback seep in. 

Many lawyers have been taught that achieving is important and conditioned to believe that your value is in your ability to perform in a certain way. It does not say anything about your worth as a person.

This type of abusive behavior happens whether you are in Biglaw, in courts, in small firms, or solo. It’s incredibly prevalent, but it’s not okay. It reflects so much more on the person treating you this way than it does on you. Your brain wants to make sense of everything, but you do not deserve to be treated this way.

Many people might have the reflex to let it roll off and ignore it. The reality is that for you to shut down your ability to be affected, you’ll have to shut down the ability to feel. It’s not humanly possible. People tend to shut down emotionally and disconnect, and that can destroy the ability to show compassion to yourself. It can eventually turn into a cycle where you will give that same treatment to others because it becomes normalized. 

Advice for Current Lawyers Dealing with Bullying in Law Firms

Bullying in law firms is happening everywhere. It might not literally happen in every workplace, but it’s highly possible it’s happened to you if you’re a lawyer. The experiences as a lawyer have taught us that it’s not okay not to be perfect. If you’re experiencing this at your workplace, it’s not your fault; you need to do what you need to do to support yourself. 

If you haven’t seen a therapist, seek one out and ensure you are as mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy as possible. Break out of the cycle of bullying in law firms. You deserve more than you’re getting. Download the free guide from the First Steps to Leaving the Law to help you determine your next steps.

Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

A listener wrote to me after a recent episode where I talked about law firms and how they are so often populated by narcissists and narcissistic systems. This person asked me if I would talk a little bit about the pervasive problem of bullying in law firms, which really, bullying is just another term for what I've talked about on this podcast before which is people being abusive, the episode where I talked about the no assh*les rule that some firms allegedly have a no assh*les rule, in reality, that's generally speaking very much a lie. That assh*le is just like a euphemistic term for someone who is abusive.

Well, another way to describe someone who's abusive is a bully. Unfortunately, there is bullying in basically every part of the law. Having practiced for 10 years and having worked with people now for the last 4 years through Former Lawyer, and heard so, so, so many stories, I want to talk a little bit about this because one of the things that this person who wrote to me mentioned, and I think it's so true for so many of you, is that if you're going through a situation where you are being bullied at work, in your legal workplace, it's really horrible and it's also extremely confusing.

There's a decent chance that you aren't even necessarily able to see it for what it is. Why is that? Well, basically because so many of us who became lawyers, our life experience taught us that our value was in our ability to perform. Generally speaking, when we're talking about bullying and law firms, the type of abuse that is often meted out is you being told that your work isn't good enough, etc., etc., but not in a constructive criticism way.

Because here's the thing, there will be some people who will hear what I say or will hear someone talk about this and they'll just say, “Oh, people just don't want to be criticized. People just don't want to improve.” No, I'm sorry. There's a difference between giving someone feedback in a way that they can take it and it can be useful, helpful, and integrated that they're actually able to process the information and then there's just being a jerk.

I guarantee you that anyone who is talking about people just not wanting to take feedback, probably is, in fact, if not actually abusive, and if not actually bullying, certainly not someone who is gifted at giving feedback in an appropriate, responsible way.

The thing is, if you're listening to this and you're experiencing this kind of treatment that could be called bullying, it's so easy for you to internalize it, because, as someone who decided to become a lawyer, you almost certainly feel like you're not perfect. You have all these ways you can improve. That's true, we all do.

What I see is that you have these people who are working so hard, who care so much about getting things right, and that desire to do things correctly, that internal self-awareness of the fact that you are not perfect is actually weaponized against you in this bullying.

Because you're made to feel like if you're not willing to accept or listen to this type of treatment, even if it's demeaning, even if it's belittling, just ridiculous things that I've heard people say like, “Did you even go to law school?” Hey, that's not a constructive comment just in case anyone was wondering.

But if you're someone who cares a lot about doing a good job, if you're someone who has learned that achieving is important and been taught or conditioned to believe that your value is in your ability to perform in a certain way, then this type of treatment, this type of abuse, this type of bullying is going to be just exponentially more difficult for you not to internalize, believe, and think that it has something to say about your value and worth as a person, which it doesn't.

But I'm telling you, I know there are so many of you out there and again, I mean yes, of course, in Biglaw but also in every other legal workplace from a solo with an assistant, a small firm, a large firm, in house, or courts, all the places, it's an unfortunate fact about our profession. I wanted to emphasize that point, because, of course, my background is in Biglaw so you know that's part of why I talk about my experiences there or the experiences of Biglaw.

But I want you to know that I also recognize that this is true all over the place. If you are an associate, one of two associates that work for a single partner, in a small firm, or in something other than a law firm, it doesn't mean that you're not subject to this same type of behavior because this behavior is all over the place. First, there's that. Let's talk about that.

Here's what I think you need to know about the experience of being bullied. One, it is incredibly prevalent. I truly cannot even count how many people I've talked to in the last four years in all different types of legal practice who are experiencing this kind of treatment. But even though it's incredibly common and pervasive, it's not okay.

It's normalized, it's common, but it's not acceptable. It's not okay. As hard as this can be to believe when you're someone who cares a lot about performing well, and who is likely to internalize this criticism, being treated in this way, being bullied like this is not your fault. It is not your fault. It reflects so much more on the emotional and mental health of the person who is treating you this way, the person or people than it does on you.

It's really hard to recognize the time when you're experiencing the treatment because your brain wants to make sense of the world. Your brain wants to make sense of the world and even wants to make sense of things that are happening to you that are bad. If you're being harmed, your brain on some level wants to believe that it makes sense.

If you're in an environment like this, you're actively having to push back against the idea of this behavior that you deserve to be treated like this. You do not deserve to be treated like this. The other thing that I think is really important, and the thing that I'll close with is that when you're being bullied as a lawyer, it can be really tempting to feel like it would be better if you were just unaffected, if the treatment that you're receiving didn't affect you, if you're just able to ignore it or let it roll off.

A lot of people tend to have this feeling of like, “I'm a weak person. I'm weak because this hurts me. I'm weak because this is traumatizing.” That's just not true. I don't know how else to say it. It's just not true. The reality is that for you to shut down your ability to be affected by this kind of treatment, you would have to shut down your ability to feel.

Frankly, in a lot of cases, that's part of why this treatment is perpetuated and continues to cycle through our legal workplaces, because there are people who, in order to survive, find ways to shut down emotionally, to disconnect, to numb out, and ultimately when you're doing that, you're disconnecting from yourself, your own humanity, and your ability to show compassion to yourself and other people.

It just makes it that much more likely that someone will be sucked into the cycle of perpetuating this kind of bullying when they disconnect from themselves and their humaneness.

That's what I wanted to say today about bullying. I wanted to recognize that it's happening and it's happening all over the place. It doesn't matter, there is no legal workplace where it's not happening, or no type of legal workplace where it's not happening to be clear.

I'm not saying that literally every legal workplace, I'm just saying regardless of where you work as a lawyer, it is highly possible that it's happening to you, that you are likely particularly susceptible to this kind of mistreatment because of the way that your life experience has taught you that you are the sum of your performance and that being imperfect is not okay, which it is okay. But of course, our experiences have taught us that it's not okay to not be perfect.

If you're being treated like this, it's not your fault. Being affected by this treatment doesn't mean that you're weak or you're doing something wrong, it means that you're human. I really encourage you, if you're experiencing this kind of mistreatment at your workplace to do what you need to do to support yourself.

Please, please please, as always, see a therapist and figure out what you need to do to protect yourself and to make sure that you are as mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy as you can be. Because being treated this way can make you feel like that's not something that you deserve, but you do, you do deserve care. You deserve to be healthy. If you're in a situation like this, you deserve more, you deserve more than what you are getting. Thank you so much for listening. I'll talk to you next week.

Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at Until next time, have a great week.