Associates in the Trenches

Immature Antics

Confront Lawyer Bullies Head On, Without Apology

Posted Jul 13, 2004 2:33 PM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Stalking the halls, making fun of people and shooting nasty looks—sounds like the mean girls in high school, right? Wrong.

Some young lawyers have been surprised to experience the same immature antics coming from their grown-up colleagues. This time, however, there’s much more than popularity at stake if the situation isn’t dealt with correctly.

One California lawyer, who asked that her name not be used, says she was once bullied by a partner at her own law firm. Instead of stealing her lunch money, this partner targeted her work product and “massively rewrote” all the work she submitted, while other partners she worked for had only occasional edits. Things finally came to a head when a filing she wrote was mistakenly rejected by the court clerk.

The associate told the partner she would talk to the court clerk to remedy the error. But the partner said no, and instead gave the associate a choice—she could “clean up” the filing and not bill the client further, or walk away, losing the hours she had put into the matter. Rather than submit to more abuse, the associate stood up for herself. To the surprise of the partner, she chose to walk.

“I could not win with this partner, no matter what I did,” the associate says. But she also credits her firm’s management for supporting her decision. As it turns out, she was not the first associate to complain about the partner, and the incident did not show up on her annual review.

“As an associate you feel completely powerless, and that’s not true,” she says. “If you’re a valued associate with good work product and you run into one bad partner, oth­ers [in the firm] will help you extricate yourself.”

Dealing directly with the situation also helped Robert Canas Jr., an assistant district attorney in Dallas, when a defense lawyer confronted him using schoolyard-style intimidation tactics.

The defense lawyer wanted Canas to give him a murder victim’s lab evaluations. Under Texas discovery law, the prosecution does not have to turn such information over, so Canas didn’t. He scoffed when the defense lawyer told him—in a courthouse hallway—that he’d been given sim­ilar information from other prosecutors.

“He said if I was calling him a liar we needed to go out to the levee behind the courthouse, and handle this man-to-man,” Canas recalls.

Canas refused. “He’s probably twice my age. I didn’t want to get charged with elder abuse,” he jokes. But the lawyer repeated the challenge—and the invitation to join him at the levee. Canas decided he would not engage the combative counsel any longer. Real men don’t solve disagreements with violence, he told the attorney, and his behavior was unprofessional. Canas now makes sure everything he does with that lawyer is in writing.

“You have to develop a thick skin,” he says. “You can’t fight just any battle. Sometimes you have to just sit there and let it bounce off you.”

NO AUTOMATIC APOLOGIES

Megan F. Brynhildsen, a Denver associate, agrees. “My mantra is, ‘It’s not personal, it’s business,’ ” she says. And when it comes to partner reprimands, she has learned not to apologize unless it’s her fault. To do so, she says, makes you appear weak, a position you don’t need to automatically assume, even as an associate.

She learned this lesson early in her career, when she was assigned a brief to write and decided to wait for instruction before beginning. A few days later a partner wanted to know why she hadn’t turned it in to him yet.

“I said I didn’t know it was my responsibility to do it, and I’ll get right on it,” she says. When he pressed the mat­ter, saying he expected her to know what her responsibil­ities were, her response was simply that now she did, and the assignment would be completed shortly.

Says Brynhildsen, “You don’t necessarily need to apologize for not doing something you didn’t know you were supposed to do.”

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