Happy Holidays! We Got You the Worst Possible Take on Law Firm Culture.

December 21, 2020

In the spirit of Frank Costanza’s Festivus “Airing of Grievances,” we’ve got something to say about recent commentary published on law.com about “difficult” partners. In “Don’t (Necessarily) Avoid That Difficult Partner,” the author, a Big Law executive coach, counsels associates to overlook a problematic partner’s unreasonable demands that cause stress, pain and suffering for the lawyers who work for him. In most cases, the coach argues, this obnoxious behavior stems from that noblest of covers: high expectations. Which means not only should you stop complaining about this treatment — you should be grateful! The supervising partner who is making your life hell is doing it for your own good.

While it is of course true that junior lawyers should expect long days and nights, working harder than they ever have before, on the road to partnership, this coach’s “suck-it-up” advice to associates (and, implicitly, to firm leaders who actually have the power to take action) is misguided. Here’s why:

Don’t “avoid” that partner? As if associates have a choice in the matter! Telling people with little power that it’s their responsibility to prevent a toxic system from harming them is a bit like blaming a gnat for flying into the windshield of a car moving at 80 miles per hour. It’s good to cultivate “resilience” in the face of constructive criticism and setbacks, but grit alone will not insulate your mental health when a supervisor violates boundaries between home and work, belittles you in front of colleagues or clients, or makes you the target of angry rants. Associates know the difference between those two kinds of “demanding,” and they should be counseled on how to find support if they experience the destructive one, not told to brush it off.

“Difficult” partners create toxic cultures. One of #MeToo’s many gifts has been to teach all of us about how the behavior of an individual can transform an entire workplace. A tyrannical boss cultivates a coterie of enablers who will not challenge him, and those who are excluded from that access to power contort themselves to accommodate his dictates. Bystanders who fear retaliation look the other way while this leader abuses his power, whether that plays out as harassment, intimidation or just being a jerk. Toxic organizations are fond of citing the “bad apple” defense to sidestep responsibility for an individual’s behavior, but they never recite the entire idiom: “One bad apple spoils the bunch. The bad apple doesn’t just quietly rot. He infects the entire organization. And in this era of unprecedented transparency and, in some cases, actual accountability, it’s bad policy to dismiss signs of trouble.

“Difficult” partners perpetuate inequality. When firm leadership allows a partner to treat subordinates poorly and even abuse them just because he is a superstar rainmaker, they are failing to create a workplace where everyone can thrive. They are also making work life more difficult in particular for lawyers from underrepresented groups — people who already face more obstacles to advancement than their peers, as research has shown time and again. Who tends to be the target of the “eccentric” partner’s rants? Who tends to benefit from his largesse, in moments when he is suddenly feeling generous? A system jerry-rigged around the whims of one person is inherently unfair, and any firm allowing that sort of treatment to continue should be very nervous about potential consequences when an associate or partner decides to speak up and fight back.

We don’t blame this coach for wanting to encourage his associate clients within the limits of their power to better their lowly position within large firms. But any advice to “buck up” should be accompanied by a strong statement condemning the tradition of bull-in-a-china-shop rainmakers making lives miserable for attorneys who suffer under them day after day.

At Page 2, we are lucky to know plenty of highly successful law leaders who bring in big business and treat everyone around them like human beings. In 2021, let’s normalize and celebrate that kind of leader.