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Take Care of Yourself

Are You Being Bullied?

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

A law firm can be a pretty difficult place to work. You’ve gathered together and granted power to people with expensive educations in … well, winning. In all of its various manifestations. In fact, most lawyers got there by successfully competing—for grades, for admission, for test scores, for interviews, for jobs, for partnership. And, after a decade or more spent sharpening the necessary skills to win every race, they are not likely to set them aside.

Organizations comprised of people with lots in common tend to amplify those characteristics. In other words, competitive behavior is oxygen for law firms. So it’s no surprise that, under stress, people may get a bit … pushy.

“Only Wimps Complain”

On top of that, we have the tradition of hierarchical and trial-by-fire training—as with the medical profession—that includes extreme work hours and often brutal emotional and intellectual situations. Plus, the current economy has sharpened elbows when it comes to the internal competition for clients or, worse, hours.

In this environment, some pretty bad behavior can go unchecked. Object, and more than likely you’ll be told to just “man up!” and get over it.

While reasonable minds can differ—and do—on whether the John Wayne School of Swimming (throw them in, see if they sink) approach produces better doctors and lawyers, it’s going to be around for a while. But when someone’s behavior goes over the line and is disrespectful and bullying, it is most certainly not okay. For the victim, it may seem easier to take the road of least resistance and just put up with it. But I’m here to support that nagging sense that you shouldn’t have to take it. I’ll even go you one further, and say that refusing to take it will make you more of an effective lawyer, not less. Not just because employees who feel unsafe are less effective, but because staring down disrespectful treatment qualifies you as an extraordinary person in this day and age.

Is It Bullying?

So, yes, it can be stressful, sometimes even nasty in a law firm. But is what you are experiencing actually bullying? And would it matter? Yes, it would. The loss of power that comes with bullying has an impact on your sense of well-being, your productivity and your willingness to get up in the morning and go to work. And naming it is very often the first step toward admitting it’s happening to you and then doing something about it.

A 2010 Zogby survey found that 53.5 million Americans said they had experienced workplace bullying, while 23 million more reported witnessing it. Examples frequently given of workplace bullying include:

  • Shouting and swearing or otherwise verbally abusing someone more junior
  • One person being singled out for unjustified criticism or blame
  • An employee being excluded from company activities or having his or her work or contributions purposefully ignored
  • Language or actions that embarrass or humiliate
  • Practical jokes, especially if they happen repeatedly to the same person
  • Consistently denying access to information needed to get the job done

If these types of things are happening to you, it’s possible that you are the target of bullying behavior. But let’s try to be clear about what workplace bullying is. While there is no single accepted definition of it, there is enough agreement to get close. In general, bullying is characterized by:

  • Repetition (occurs regularly)
  • Duration (is enduring)
  • Escalation (increasing aggression)
  • Power disparity (targets lack the power to successfully defend themselves)
  • Attributed intent (to humiliate or demean)

Bullying is different from aggression, which may involve only a single act. Bullying involves repeated incidents, creating an ongoing pattern of abusive behavior. So bosses who are tough or demanding or who set high standards are not necessarily bullies, as long as they are respectful and fair and their expectations are reasonable.

Or Is It You?

It would be wrong to discuss this without suggesting that you examine the flip side. Be honest with yourself about whether or not you might just be too sensitive. A raised eyebrow, a mumble under the breath, a particularly critical response to your latest work assignment? That’s not bullying. Even if it leaves you in tears. To qualify as bullying, it has to be repeated, unreasonable and abusive.

So What?

If you conclude that you are the target of bullying, don’t resist the label. While no one likes to see themselves as the victim, being honest about what’s happening to you and standing up for yourself can be the beginning of a much better situation. There are several routes to resolving the dilemma. Next time, we’ll post about some of your options.

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is Partner/Catalyst at Attorney at Work. She was a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, past President of the College of Law Practice Management and an inaugural LMA Hall of Fame inductee.

Categories: Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Culture, Law Firm People Management, New Lawyers
Originally published August 30, 2012
Last updated September 22, 2020
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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