Conflicts of Interest: Clashing Personalities in a Law Firm


I work at a small law firm in a failing city about 45 minutes as the crow flies outside of Philadelphia.  This city, whose railroad is featured on the Monopoly board, is a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll in its makeup, sitting in a county with an eclectic mix of old money and the hillbilliest farmers you’ll see outside of an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies.  The city, however, can best be described as a barrio, with Spanish being the primary language of the streets, the center of downtown failing in a spiral of poverty and crime, and, like many such areas throughout the country, the urban center of decay being a staunchly Democrat stronghold in a sea of an otherwise-Red county.

This has caused me a few problems.  See, I’m a white southern male who transplanted to the North, and as such am viewed with distrust by everyone around me.  I’m also just slightly to the left of Roosevelt politically.  I would have been ecstatic to have had the option to vote for Sanders.  I am, God help me, a southern Democrat.  My style is to never raise my voice, never yell, never scream.  I’m openly friendly, but, as our office staff says, they can easily tell when I’m angry because my tone hardens, my drawl disappears, and I begin to clip my words.

My boss?  Not so much. He is the last of the old school of lawyers, who combined legal skill with powerful presence to get things done.  His style includes yelling during phone calls with clients and opposing parties.  When he’s calm and things are going as predicted, things around the office are peaceful and even friendly.  When something goes wrong, or he perceives something to be wrong, things tense up as he screams his way through the office.

A common target of this screaming is the poor associate who sits behind this keyboard.

Let me be clear, I’m not a soft-skinned special snowflake.  I grew up in a law practice with a father who would do the same thing, but in a quieter way.  My father, whose firm does very, very well focusing on personal injury and family law trial work, didn’t yell, though.  It wasn’t his style to scream his way through the office.  However, many a junior lawyer, much like his children, came to fear the soft knock on the office door followed by a clipped, almost too soft, “I need a minute to talk.”  Dad’s style was to quietly, and discretely, rake you over the coals by pointing out every mistake, every error, and every possible consequence.

Law offices, as almost any associate will tell you, are high-stress places.  Any environment where a “million dollar comma” is a real thing has to be.  Staying on our toes, working long hours, knowing a file backwards and forwards, these are the hallmarks of a profession where someones financial, or physical, freedom is at stake daily.  We have to be on edge in some areas, because the difference between success and malpractice can sometimes be as little as using one word instead of another.  Couple into that the billable hour requirements, the dumping of files on associates, the need for an associate to cultivate and build a book of clients of his or her own, and the fact that every associate, after passing the bar, is now tossed into the real world of practicing law with little practical experience, and there’s no room in law for being a Sensitive Susan about things.

Unfortunately, this means that more than one associate will, at some point, look up to see their red-faced managing partner standing in the door to their office holding some piece of paperwork.  Likely, this is about the time they’ll also notice the paralegals and support staff have cleared the area and are now watching by peeking around a corner.  All the air will be sucked out of the room as the partner’s rage boils over and the screaming and berating begins.

The first time I faced the wrath of my partner, I was shaken to the core.  I forget exactly what had set him off, but I remember hearing things like “This is a fucking law office, not a fucking day care” and “This is why I make the fucking big bucks and you don’t.”  My staff, who apparently had witnessed this more than once, spoke in hushed whispers the remainder of the day, furtively glancing into my office to determine if the broken shell of a human being was, indeed, still employed there.

This wasn’t the last time I got treated to the screaming rage of a partner, only the first.  My partner’s litigation style bled over into his management style, and suddenly I understood why a mentor, upon finding out where I was working, merely said “he has a high turnover.”  As time progressed, though, I began to grow into my role until, eventually, the concept of yelling at me became less of an issue.  How?

With me it was one instance where he called about a brief I had stayed in the office working on until 2 a.m.  He wanted to add an argument that ignored the parol evidence rule. He felt it was possible to make the argument that the court could consider extrinsic evidence despite, in the same argument section, stating it was unambiguous and fully integrated.  I told him it wasn’t possible to do so and watched the steam start rising from his head.

“Goddammit, I don’t give a shit how late you were here last night!” he raged.  “I told you to make the fucking argument, so make it.”

“No.”

“What did you just say?  I don’t need your fucking lip, I’ve been practicing 25 years and…”

At that point I walked over and closed my office door, and we had a talk about why his argument wasn’t possible and that arguing it would be going against hundreds of years of case law in our jurisdiction.  I say “had a talk,” but in reality it was more listing off case names that argued directly against his position.  I then gave him the draft argument I had made that adopted his position, and explained the only way to make it.

“It’s weak,” he said, calming.

“It’s very weak,” I answered, “I literally had to cobble it together from three or four only slightly related lines of cases.  It’s the only way to make the argument you want to make.”

“How is the argument without it?”

“Pretty strong.  We’re on good ground.”

“Can we do anything to get the judge to look at the emails?”

“The draft I put on your desk last night says the parol evidence rule doesn’t bar the court from looking at the extrinsic evidence in determining the ultimate intent of the parties in contracting.  I think that will get the court to look at it,” I said.

Later that day, he apologized for the yelling.  He said he was used to yelling at other associates. I shrugged it off, saying that I was used to it because I grew up in a law office.

“I know,” he said, “but I can’t take advantage of that.”

He still yells at me.  I yell at him too, from time to time.  When he says he’s the boss, I remind him I’m a lawyer too.

So how do you handle this in your practice?  What if you’re the beleaguered associate subject to the temperamental partner?  How can you survive?

  1. Double check your work.  Never put shoddy work on a partner’s desk.  If there aren’t mistakes to be found, there aren’t mistakes to be yelled at over.
  2. Ask questions.  If you don’t know something, ask.  A good partner knows part of their job is the mentoring of young attorneys.  Asking one question now can save you down the road.
  3. Get approval.  Each firm is different.  Some will hand you cases with minimal oversight.  Others want documents run by a senior associate or a partner before it goes out.  If it’s the latter, show it to them.  If you’re unsure if you need to, refer to #2 and, on getting the assignment, ask “Do you want to see this before it goes out?”
  4. Remember you’re an employee. To a certain extent, you’re an employee.  You don’t fight the boss and expect not to be in trouble.  Or as I say “I have to run it by [Partner], because my name’s not on the sign (yet).”
  5. Remember you’re a lawyer, too. While you’re an employee, you’re also a lawyer. When it comes to legal matters and research, you have to speak up.  Imagine if I hadn’t pointed out the error above.  What do you think is more likely, that the partner admits he’s wrong or that he says “You were supposed to research this! What the hell?” It’s a fine line between employee and colleague, but you’re going to have to learn how to walk it.
  6. Use support staff.  Notice how the secretaries and paralegals never get screamed at? It’s because they’ve been there longer.  Don’t disdain them, use them.  Ask them questions about things.  Ask them to help find things.  Ask them for examples.  They know how the office does things, pick their brains.
  7. Know when to get out. Sometimes personalities clash past the point of working through them. In that case, plan on a way to get out on good terms.  Your boss is likely established in the legal community and can nuke your future prospects.  Don’t burn that bridge.

I know that over time I’ve become less of an employee and more of a colleague.  I’ve developed a reputation independent of my office, and as such I’ve gotten more respect in my office.  We hardly ever have yelling matches these days, and more often my partner and I have terse conversations where we each explain our positions and debate them.  

Hang in there, little associate.  It gets better.  If you have any tips or tales, feel free to share them in the comments below.  

-BB