The Challenges of Giving Notice at Toxic Law Firms [TFLP184]

In today’s episode, Sarah talks about how people look at those who are giving notice at law firms. The views tend to be distorted, especially from others who work at the firm. This comes up often in Sarah’s conversations with former lawyers and people who are still currently working in law, so today, she’s diving in a bit deeper.

The Toxic Cycle at Law Firms

In recent conversations, it’s come up to Sarah that when someone is leaving a law firm and gives notice, some problematic commentary occurs from other partners and coworkers. Assumptions are made, such as, “I just don’t think they really want t work hard.” Comments like this are so common when people leave, even though they couldn’t be further from the truth most of the time. 

Sarah’s experience has shown her that it’s typically a toxic firm or a toxic person running things that make people turn in their resignation. Toxic people fail to see that they are the problems and instead make assumptions and untrue statements about the people leaving. It’s hard to escape from the loop that makes you feel like you are the problem, but once you get out of the toxic workplace, you realize that the working world doesn’t have to be like that.

People who work in law firms and other toxic work environments have a hard time gaining perspective. You’re stuck in a deeply unpleasant cycle and think you aren’t cutting it. These leaders have a way of spinning the narrative and pointing fingers at those who are leaving. It’s a problematic culture and keeps people working in a space that makes them miserable because they don’t want anyone pointing the finger at them. 

Break Free of Toxicity and Find Work Aligning With Your Values

It’s important to trust yourself and your own experience. It’s hard, but you need to remain grounded in the facts. This cycle, or phenomenon, is happening in law firms and legal teams all over the place. You need to be aware of and watch for it to avoid jumping in on those narratives. You went to law school and passed the bar, there is so much evidence that you can work hard, so if you want to leave, it’s likely because of your environment.
Don’t get trapped. You are allowed to work in an environment that motivates you and aligns with your values. That means you are also allowed to walk away from something toxic. If you are considering leaving law or have contemplating walking away from your current role, we encourage you to download the free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law, for some fantastic resources and check out other episodes of the podcast for great first-hand accounts of former lawyers who have found a better fit for them.

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.

Today I want to talk about this distorted view of the world that tends to seep in, especially in law firm contexts. This distorted view that I'm talking about is specifically related to why someone would leave a law firm and their reasons for that. I have had multiple conversations over the last couple of months with people who work in law firms, either an associate, a paralegal or legal assistant, or someone else leaving the law firm, who gave notice.

My client, the person I was talking with, a friend in several different contexts, shared that in multiple cases, you had partners making comments about the person who'd given notice, and the comments were disturbingly similar and these are comments that I heard, and I know many, many other people have heard, in the context of someone giving notice to a law firm. The conversation was a discussion about the person giving notice and then the partner musing on why the person was leaving.

There was a statement made to the effect of “Yeah, I just don't think they really want to work hard.” Now, if you listened to the podcast for more than five minutes, you probably know how I feel about this statement. This statement is the most ridiculous, ludicrous statement for a partner to make in this context. Now, let's get the caveat out of the way. I'm not saying there's never a scenario where someone is not willing to work hard. I'm not saying that. However, it is remarkable how thoroughly this myth, and completely and pervasively, this myth is trotted out every time someone gives notice at a law firm.

Speaking from my experience, it's many times in a situation where the firm is particularly toxic or perhaps you have a situation where a person is working for a specific group, the group is run by a particularly toxic person, and then that particularly toxic person, in musing about why that person is leaving, surmises that it's because the person who's leaving doesn't want to work hard and it's like, no, no, it's not because they don't want to work hard, it's because working for you is terrible, because working here is trash.

This especially I've noticed happens in situations where people give notice when they don't have something else lined up. The thing is, when you're in this system, there is a part of you I think that always is going to feel like if you leave and someone thinks this about you, maybe it's true. Because there's a degree to which you have to engage with and even buy into some of these myths that are perpetuated in order to continue working especially in an environment that's super toxic because you need to be able to continue to spur yourself on.

But once you get outside of that environment, and once you leave and you realize that like, “This isn't actually just like how the working world is, that these myths that are perpetuated within the law firm bubble are not actually truisms about the way the world works,” you also are able to see how ridiculous it is that the go-to, number one, first assumptions/response of someone who is instrumental in supporting creating a problematic culture at a law firm is also the one who thinks that people are leaving because there's some sort of moral deficiency in them that they're not willing to work hard.

Newsflash, it's not because they're not willing to work hard. It's because working with you, the person who has made the assumption or working at this firm, is deeply unpleasant, and they don't want to do it anymore. I think it's so easy if you're someone who's in an environment like this, who's working in environments like this, it's so easy to lose perspective on the fact that this way of thinking about people, this way of thinking about yourself, this assumption that you're constantly trying to get away with something and not trying to work hard, it's nonsensical and it generally speaking is not consistent with your own experience of yourself.

Often you can see it with other people. You can see often if someone has given notice, and you know they're someone who's very instrumental, works really hard, yet immediately, their response is like, “Oh, well, they just don't want to work hard,” you can see that there is a lack of logic there, you can see that that's not actually grounded in facts, but there can still be this sort of fear that even though it's not true about those other people, if you were to leave, maybe it would be true about you. A big part of that is not being able to trust yourself and your own experience.

This is something we talk about on the podcast a lot. But for a lot of reasons as lawyers, those of us who chose to be lawyers and the way that we were trained as lawyers, it tends to diminish our ability to trust ourselves and trust our own experience. That's why I think it's really important to highlight some of these phenomena that occur in these contexts that are so pervasive.

For me to hear the same story over and over and over of this reason being trotted out by someone in a position, like in a supervisory position in a context where that person is part of the problem, someone is leaving, and the conclusion is immediately, “Well, the person is leaving because they don't want to work hard,” there's a reason that that happens over and over and over in a bunch of different workplaces, in a bunch of different locations, and a bunch of different types of legal workplaces.

I want you to be aware of the fact that this type of phenomenon is real, and that there's a decent chance if you work in an environment like this that you are, in some way, internalizing this way of looking at the world that can make it very hard for you to trust yourself. Because listen, you went to law school, you passed the bar, you're practicing as a lawyer, there are so many reasons, there's so much evidence that you do in fact work hard, that if you're wanting to leave the place that you are working because of a bad work environment or because it's a bad fit, that has nothing to do with your work ethic.

We could have a whole separate conversation about the idea of work ethic and all the things around that but we will put that to the side for this episode. The point being when someone gives notice at a law firm and the immediate response is they must be leaving because they don't want to work hard, what I want you to hear, see, and recognize is that that is a response of defensiveness that is being born out of an inability to see why someone else might have a different perspective and an effort to protect that person who's making that judgment and effort by them to protect the decisions that they've made in their mind to protect them as the right decisions, the right things, the right way to do things. That's a trap.

It's a trap. The idea that so and so is leaving because they don't want to work hard is so reductive of so many things about us as human beings, including the fact that, as we talk about here a lot, a big part of what should be driving your decision about your career is your values and whether your work and the place that you're working aligns with your values, the type of work that you're doing allows you to live in a way that is consistent with your values, it is much more likely that someone is going to walk away from a job because of that than because they just don't want to work hard.

This is a real phenomenon. It's ridiculous. I hope if and when you encounter this experience, see this in your workplace, you can recognize it for what it is. Because the reality is there are a million reasons why someone might decide to leave a job in the law that have nothing to do with whether or not they want to work hard. That's all for this week. I will 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.