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The associate walked into my office clearly upset and asked if we could talk. She closed the door and let loose: “George is such an asshole! He makes my life miserable and now he’s given me a bad review!” She checked off the details of this partner’s abuse and ineptitude, and the many reasons she hated working with him.
I worked with Lisa when she came into the firm a few years back and found her to be an excellent researcher, with the promise of becoming an excellent attorney. She did great work on several of my cases and I had enjoyed watching her career blossom. Recently, however, her performance had lagged.
We talked for a while and I came to understand more of her predicament. Because George was a jerk — as recognized by most people in the firm — Lisa had pushed back in the only way she knew how, which was to not work well with him. One problem with that approach was that Lisa’s own performance and reputation in the firm suffered. Her attitude was getting in the way of her work.
I counseled her to understand the realities of the situation: George was a partner, everyone knew he was an asshole, and his performance (if not his style) was acceptable to the firm (if not to me and others). She was only hurting herself.
When she asked what she should do, I gave the following advice.
First, do your job. You were hired for a purpose, to accomplish some things. Part of proving yourself is making certain you fulfill the need you were hired to address. Nothing else you do matters if you fail to do your job. Do your job and do it well, period.
Second, do not get distracted. It’s easy to get knocked off-track by bad management, politics or personality issues. You’re going to experience those in any job, in any group, firm or department. Get over it and stay focused on your job. (I did not say “Man up!” but I was tempted.)
Third, co-workers and mentors can help — to a point. It’s nice to have a sympathetic ear and someone to empathize with you. Don’t get distracted by their support or expect them to fix your problem. Frankly, some of them will be less sympathetic than you’d like. Be careful not to let your problem interfere with your relationship with them.
Fourth, manage the other distractions. If you are active in firm committees and firm-sponsored extracurricular activities, take care to consider the impact of those (probably more enjoyable) efforts on your work. If they interfere or take your energy away from your job, make a change.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When working in a hostile environment, there is a tendency to respond by becoming overly conservative and risk-averse. Paralysis is worse than error. Don’t let the environment shut you down.
You will always encounter jerks, no matter where you go. The issue is not letting them get to you, or allowing them to determine how well you perform. Sure, sometimes the bad outweighs the good — enough so that you should leave. But, in my opinion, you “win” if you can keep your head up and perform well, despite the jerks.
Lisa looked up at me with a smile and said, “Okay, then I’ll just out-effing-class ’em!”
Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.
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