Daily Dispatch

Curmudgeon's Perspective

Best Way to Deal with a Jerk?

By | Dec.16.14 | Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice, Legal Careers, Professional Development

Otto Sorts

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.

“You’re Not the Only One George Irritates!”

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.

How Should You Deal?

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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6 Responses to “Best Way to Deal with a Jerk?”

  1. jackl
    16 December 2014 at 9:12 am #

    Sixth (and the most obvious to me), or maybe first:

    Skip all the heartbreak, polish your resume and find another job.

    The advice above, while well meaning, strikes me as similar to the kind of denial of telling your kids to “ignore bullies” or “turn their taunts into jokes”.

    Quite simply, it doesn’t work and just encourages the bully.

    If you have a target on your back, just move on. If the other partners are truly concerned with a-hole partner’s behavior, when good staff start walking out the door, THEY’LL do something about it.

  2. Nadia
    16 December 2014 at 9:49 am #

    For the most part, I would agree with your response to Lisa. However, there are times when the workplace becomes a thoroughly abusive environment and the person on the receiving end cannot just ‘suck it up’ and do their work.

    What disappoints me greatly is when people choose not to advocate for somebody they know is capable and being unfairly picked on. A choice to remain silent is a choice to enable an abuser. Just because unacceptable behaviour has been accepted by those around you does not mean that you also have to accept it and effectively endorse it.

  3. K.C. Victor
    16 December 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    Otto, I have always enjoyed your posts, and thank you for this one. You have offered clear, and in my opinion, extremely helpful, suggestions. Nonetheless, the entireity of what you suggest is often hard to follow. Therefore, I also sometimes suggest the spiritual tool of a gratitude list.

    At least a few times a week it helps to put on paper the things for which you are grateful about the firm or organization, the work, and maybe even the difficult individual. It only takes ten minutes or so, and the attitude adjustment creates hours of efficiency instead of dour distraction.

  4. T. Grella
    17 December 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    I do not know who Otto is, however, I assume he is still a partner at a firm, and Lisa is still an associate at the same firm. If this is not the case, then my comments may not apply. If George is truly a jerk, and conducts himself inappropriately, Otto has a duty to the Firm, and all of its members (not just Lisa) to do much more than provide the advice he has given. That is fine for her, but he shoud have assured her that since everyone knows he is a jerk (and the column kind of states it as fact), that is actually part of George’s performance. Quality service is much more than personal hours, billings and collections. The conduct of George (which Otto calls “style”) is probably not only affecting Lisa, but others performance as well. George’s conduct is therefore an integral part of his actual performance, and as described it is actually not good. He has an obligation to have managment of the Firm address the situation, which will likely mean confronting George and assuring that he either changes his conduct or ultimately (after much work to help him change) leaves. What you have told her is that George will never change, and that is acceptable to the Firm. Management has a duty to others in the firm, staff and attornreys, and the Firm itself as an organization to not tolerate unacceptable conduct. So for me number six would be to assure her that since “everyone” recognizes that his conduct is not acceptable, and though she should work on #1 – #5, she can rest assured that he will seek to have the improper conduct addressed by the partners.

  5. Attorney Brian Mason
    24 December 2014 at 4:59 am #

    Otto this is a great article. When it comes to assholes we all need to understand that when people are that way it is because they have an insecurity. And sometimes the best way to deal with such people is to be us.

  6. Stephen P. Gallagher
    9 January 2015 at 9:42 am #

    Otto:
    I have to agree with Mr. Grella. Otto has a duty to the Firm, and all of its members (not just Lisa) to do much more than provide the advice he has given.

    I think Otto just convinced Lisa to look elsewhere. Otto confirmed that nothing will change here.

    Very common situation in many firms and it takes strong leadership to hold everyone accountable.

    Great conversation.
    SPG


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