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Bullies: Some Law Firms Try Closing The Door On Bad Behavior


August 1, 2007

Read Time

19 minutes


By Olivia Clarke – Published by Chicago Lawyer

Back in elementary school, the bully picked on the weaker kids during recess or taunted the students sitting alone in the cafeteria. Today, this schoolyard bully has only gotten older and has simply found a new turf — the office.

Office bullies exist in all professions, including the law. They no longer throw spitballs, but instead repeatedly and persistently demean, ridicule, or psychologically hurt those who are less powerful or less senior.

"Nobody wants to deal with the bully, but you have to decide who you are as a firm," said Bryan I. Schwartz, chairman of Levenfeld Pearlstein. "Most law firms are unwilling to draw that line in the sand. It is really sad because you find people working in purgatory and at the beck-and-call of the bully, and nobody to help them."

"It is a question at the end of the day of courage. Your firm either has it or they don't. And it is just that simple and it is just that hard. [Bullying] is just not the way you want to live your life and deal with somebody. Life is just too short. I think firms are starting to come around to understanding that, but I don't think they are coming around to it fast enough. [Bullies] just keep moving to other firms."

Law firm bullies can often be difficult to fire because they may be rainmakers or powerful partners. Some firms create "no-jerk rules" in an attempt to weed out bullies or avoid hiring them altogether. They acknowledge that bullies do exist in the legal community, and can make the job more difficult.

But many firms opted to not talk about this topic, while other firms proudly said they just do not tolerate this type of behavior. They fear that this behavior could drive talented new lawyers away during a time when it is difficult to keep young talent.

"When a culture of disrespect is encouraged, I think it affects morale and causes people to leave and causes people to be less productive on a job," said Dr. Stafford C. Henry, a forensic psychiatrist who participated in June in a law firm bullying panel. "Ultimately that hurts the firm."

The topic of workplace bullies is being talked about locally and nationally.

The American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility hosted a panel discussion on law firm bullies in June at its 33rd National Conference on Professional Responsibility in Chicago.

Blogs, magazines, law firms, and web sites have discussed the popular new book, "The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't," by Robert I. Sutton. The book, which was released in February, analyzes the problems caused by bullies and what companies could be doing to handle them.

Since writing the book, Sutton said he receives at least five e-mails a day from victims of bullying. Here is one example:

"I am a legal secretary who has worked with countless assholes my entire working life. Attorneys, upper management and even staff and secretaries who demean and poison the workplace with their vindictiveness, competitiveness and general lack of respect for others. I have found that management's 'solution' to dealing with these types of people is that YOU must tip toe around them because, 'well, you know how he/she is.' Now how much sense does that make?! I wish I had the money to purchase hundreds of copies of your book, along with your 'asshole quiz' and send them, (anonymously of course), to every asshole I've ever worked with — like the partner I've worked with who never ever looks at me, speaks to me or acknowledges that I exist. I HATE this asshole. Or the attorney who wishes I could 'meet his needs better' when he NEVER communicates with me at all. Or the female attorney who will rip me to shreds when the printer malfunctions but expects humor and compassion when she makes a mistake of her own or the bullying senior partner who gets away with making mincemeat out of underlings by screaming and hollering at them because he/she brings in so much business for the firm. It's sick."

A bully among us

During Conrad Nowak's judicial clerkship, he took mental notes of who treated the court or opposing counsel with disrespect, and which firms they worked at.

When he began interviewing at law firms, he searched for places with a friendly, collegial environment — and stayed away from those that did not promote that attitude.

"I wanted a place where, when I woke up every morning, I would look forward to coming to work and look forward to learning and working with the people at the firm," said Nowak, now an associate at Hinshaw & Culbertson.

"Bullying may very well be one of the major reasons why we see, generally in the legal profession, a lot of turnover and a lot of people leaving on account that they are sitting scared in their offices," he said. "I know that is not why I went to law school."

Associate Kathy Zambrano, from Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg, said she knows people who have quit law firms because they felt bullied. Law firms and senior partners can develop reputations for poor behavior and they will be avoided by others, she said.

Bullies often transfer their anger about their own actions onto someone else, she said. They may be insecure about their own abilities, and use fear as a motivator.

"You spend so much of your time at work that you want the people you are working with to be pleasant and you want to enjoy spending time with them," Zambrano said. "I avoided firms with bad reputations."

Law is one of those occupations where people are sometimes hired to be "assholes," said Sutton, author, psychologist, and a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. Getting some lawyers to turn off their bullying behavior when they step away from the job can be part of the problem, he said.

Sutton speculates that two groups of law firm bullies exist — the clueless and the strategic. In extreme cases, some lawyers do not realize they are bullying until they receive feedback, while the strategic bully believes the mythology that being tough and demeaning is the best way to get ahead, he said.

Too many law firms tolerate, and even celebrate, the arrogant, hot-tempered jerk, Sutton said, "because he brings in wads of cash. It is a deal with the devil — so long as you keep bringing in the money, we keep allowing — or encouraging you — to be an asshole."

A bully may unreasonably throw his or her weight around, said Tim Eaton, shareholder and a litigation partner at Shefsky & Froelich. Firms must support zero tolerance and show bullies the door because their behavior can be disruptive, Eaton said.

Handling litigation work is an adversarial process on its own, he said. Dealing with adversarial behavior within a firm only makes the job that much more difficult.

"They are out there and, unfortunately, where it seems to be tolerated is when an individual is a significant rainmaker or a productive partner," Eaton said. "That still shouldn't excuse it. We are all under a lot of tension, but there is no excuse for that conduct."

Bullies tend to be achievement-oriented people who are extremely productive on an individual basis and often have a lot of business, Schwartz said. But they are horrendously cancerous to the environment they practice in, he said.

Quentin George Heisler, partner-in-charge of the Chicago office of McDermott Will & Emery, defines a jerk or bully as someone who doesn't participate or share in the firm's mission.

This lawyer may hoard work, credit, and people. He or she may abuse younger lawyers or the staff, but remain cordial to peers and those in higher standing, Heisler said.

"I have been practicing 39 years and I've seen a whole lot of things happen," he said. "This law firm is a big part of my life. I don't want to practice in an atmosphere that is corrosive and selfish, and an atmosphere where there is no collegiality, and no particular friendship. My life should be more pleasant than that. Secondly, these kinds of attributes work to the disadvantage of the institution itself.

"We have to be able to work comfortably side-by-side or else we can't get work done for our clients."
Christina Tchen, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, has encountered opposing counsel who she calls "Rambo litigators."

These lawyers try to make their point by raising their voices rather than demonstrating actual merit, Tchen said. They can be unreasonably argumentative and difficult, and often try to bully younger lawyers.

"Typically what I advise younger lawyers is to know your stuff," she said. "If you are better prepared on the facts and stick to your guns, volume only gets you so far if you don't have the facts."

Partners who bully will find it hard to survive in most law firms because they will develop a bad reputation and no one will want to work with them, Tchen said.

Dan L. Boho, senior partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson, said two multi-party cases he worked on — one involving the Cook County headquarters fire litigation and the other involving the Hancock scaffold litigation — acted as examples of how attorneys on both sides can work together civilly. Both of those cases each had about 15 to 20 law firms involved.

All sides represented their clients without creating unnecessary fights, he said. They pushed their positions strongly, but never lost focus, he said. Proper focus on key issues makes a practice much more efficient.
"Clients do not want to hear about how lawyers are able to fight over a bunch of collateral issues," he said. "For one, it doesn't move you toward an ultimate solution.

"If you can control your ego, you are okay. The client never benefits with you having a misplaced ego."

True civility and courteousness have a medicinal effect on disputes, while bullying will have a detrimental impact, Boho said.

"My goal is to be the nicest lawyer in the business," Boho said. "I'm a pretty aggressive lawyer, but I also try to be the nicest.

"The interesting part is the more mannerly you are in presenting yourself as a lawyer, the more satisfying your practice will be, and then the more people will show that same respect back." Causes and effects Every rude comment or blow-up does not constitute a bully, jerk, or asshole, Sutton wrote in his book.

"It is far harder to qualify as a certified asshole: a person needs to display a persistent pattern, to have a history of episodes that end with one 'target' after another feeling belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized and generally worse about themselves," he wrote.

"On occasion, the stress may cause people to engage in abhorrent kinds of behavior," said Peter R. Bulmer, managing partner of the Chicago office of Jackson Lewis and a participant in the ABA panel on bullying. "But if it is reoccurring, then that is a bigger discussion."

Bullying can be in the eye of the beholder, Tchen said.

People need to understand the difference between bullying and the stressful situations that can occur when dealing with the "bet the company kinds of cases," she said.

"There's always going to be moments at 2 o'clock in the morning where you've got to get things done and things get tense," she said.

A person can possess an annoying personality or have a tendency to micromanage. But this person doesn't necessarily cross the line until this behavior becomes repeated, persistent, and harmful or hurtful, said Marty Martin, a DePaul University associate professor and a psychologist who assists those coping with bullying and those prone to bully.

When looking at the baseline for bullying in a general workplace, it is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of workers experienced or witnessed bullying, said Martin, who also participated in the ABA bullying panel.

"The target or victim of bullying is more than likely not going to be able to concentrate on the task at hand," Martin said. "It would also impact the quality of the work product because problem-solving is impaired and decision-making is impaired, both from the distraction and — if they now anticipate being bullied — the anticipatory anxiety. For some people a pattern of bullying may increase absenteeism."

Bullying can impact retention and increase turnover because people who feel like victims of this behavior will leave, Martin said.

Handling someone who is inappropriate can be harder in smaller firms because that person could be bringing in the majority of the business, Bulmer said. Firing this person may mean losing significant business. But on the flip side, Eaton said, "I've seen smaller firms where if that type of thing goes unchecked it can lead to the dissolution of the firm, because people no longer want to be in an environment where that behavior is tolerated."

More people start to act like bullies when they realize bullying is acceptable, Schwartz said. "That is where the leadership is responsible. Where do we aim our moral compass?" he said. "We decided a couple years ago to aim it toward values first and money second. What we found is we made more money. The energy that is created by [bullies] leaving the firm is extraordinary. Those people are energy vampires. They suck the life out of you."

Jerks or bullies can take a lot of the manager's time, which could be better spent in other ways, Heisler said.

"If anyone slips in, we know pretty quickly who that person is," he said. "We are putting out fires behind them. In one fashion they are more expensive to have around. The impact on the morale of young lawyers and the other lawyers is very strong. These types of lawyers tend to create and support cliques."

A compensation system can be an incentive in some firms for lawyers to put people down and treat each other badly so that they receive the bigger bonus and the most partnership points, Sutton said. A potential lateral hire should be studied because the lawyer could be moving for more money or because he or she didn't get along with his or her last firm, he said.

Bullying behavior typically goes on for a while until the firm can no longer ignore it, or it escalates to a point that it creates an intimidating work place, said Henry, a forensic psychiatrist. It may be tolerated until it comes to the management's attention when a policy is put into place, he said.

It can be caused by a narcissistic personality, where that person feels entitled to act rudely; a sociopathic disorder, or lack of regard for how others are treated; substance abuse; or even a bipolar disorder, Henry said.

Bullies may act the way they do because of a troubled home life. Or sometimes, people just behave badly because they are accustomed to behaving that way and it has nothing to do with a psychiatric disorder, he said.

"It is my belief, that regardless of the profession and regardless of the stressors that may occur in the course of the workplace, you need to be respectful of other people," Henry said. "I think, what I hope is that firms genuinely embrace a policy where bullies are not tolerated. And these polices are put into place to identify this behavior, to set expectations, to get individuals the treatment they need, and to clearly outline consequences for continued inappropriate behavior." Handling bullies Firms must create an office where civility and good behavior are woven into everything it represents, said Mary Robinson, an ethics and professional responsibility consultant, and former administrator of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

Some firms support a place where employees fear that complaining about a bully will negatively affect their success, said Robinson, who was also an ABA bullying panel participant. And others allow everyone to act inappropriately so people believe nothing will change.

The firm's leadership must pay attention to what crosses the line, she said.

"A firm could find ways of trying to identify the dollar figure or the cost to the firm of having someone who misbehaves," Robinson said. "That would give those who are already dedicated to eliminating this behavior a tool that they don't have. I think that is what the literature says — there is a definite identifiable cost.

"A firm that really wants to take this issue on, I'm convinced would benefit from trying to identify where those costs are."

Helen Friedli, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, said the firm's collaborative environment does not allow for bullies. Lawyers must work together across practice areas to serve clients, Friedli said.

"We don't have any kings, but we have lots of princes and princesses," she said. "We are not dominated by a practice area. Nobody gets to beat their chest and say, 'I'm King Kong here.' No one gets to take a sort of superior position. When lots of people are experiencing success, it is not an environment that tolerates bullying or arrogant types of behavior."

Eaton, from Shefsky & Froelich, said younger or newer lawyers might find it hard to speak up when being bullied, but silence only perpetuates the problem.

"We try to keep the jerk quotient to a minimum, and we do have zero tolerance for it," Eaton said. "Frankly, that is the best way to handle it. Unfortunately, sometimes people do not realize what they are doing, and pointing it out might help them."

Tom Fitzgerald, firm-wide managing partner of Winston & Strawn, said his firm made a resolution to create a thorough interview process so bullies do not get hired. A lot of partners interview candidates to understand their personality, how they treat people, and how they get work done, Fitzgerald said.

But if an incident occurs, a firm leader will notify the person about it and talk through the concerns to figure out the next step, he said.

Aside from procedure, Fitzgerald said he tries to show civility in the firm by calling those he works with by their first names and saying things like "Thank You."

"I think that if you take the time to do the small things, they get noticed and are appreciated and you kind of foster the kind of culture you want," he said.

Sutton suggests in his book, "The No Asshole Rule," that a no asshole rule be part of hiring policies, and resident jerks should be kept out of this process. Companies should also get rid of bullies fast, and treat "certified assholes" as incompetent employees, he wrote.

Law firms need to watch what happens to people when they take on leadership positions, Sutton said. The nicest people can change for the worse when they take on a power position.

A no-jerk rule does not mean that colleagues should avoid conflict and not argue, he said. All companies should develop a place where people know when to argue, and when to stop fighting and get the job done.

Law firms must set an expectation that everyone is treated with respect and dignity, and inappropriate behavior is not to be tolerated, Henry said. Once poor behavior is identified, it needs to be confronted and that confrontation must be done firmly, but caringly, he said.

"My feeling is, you can't just say, 'Don't do it anymore,"' Henry said. "You should say, 'we are concerned about you as an employee. We fear that there may be some behaviors that we don't feel we are qualified to deal with, and here is how we think you should address these problems."'

Firms should do surveys of their people to better understand what the real climate is like, and study firm turnover, said Martin, a psychologist.

Those with concerns need to check in with a trusted colleague or friend to determine if they were really bullied or if they were being sensitive, he said. If bullying did occur, they need to talk with a manager or someone in human resources.

"If they are feeling psychologically stressed, depressed, or anxious, they may need to seek some form of counseling," he said. "Let's assume the bullying doesn't cease, then they may have to look at external remedies or what they may have to do, unfortunately, is leave the firm."

Hiring a bully who has a strong reputation as a lawyer or a big book of business can be tempting, but McDermott Will & Emery won't do it, Heisler said.

"It's interesting that, as lawyers, we all work under highly stressful conditions and with deadlines and demands from clients and so on," he said. "As a result, from time to time, we can be short, brisk, and maybe not even polite."

But, over time, if that behavior becomes corrosive and escalates to abuse or bullying, it gets noticed pretty quickly, he said.

"We can't keep the people that we want to keep in this law firm if they feel abused and victimized by lawyers," he said. "As you know, they are more mobile than they've ever been, and if they have a single confrontation with some idiot in a law firm, they may very well say, 'I have to leave after that because he may come after me again,' or, 'I simply don't want to be part of an institution that supports that behavior."

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