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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Jerks in the Workplace

Let me first admit that I don't have much experience in this area. I am fortunate enough to have an amazing supervising attorney who, though he probably doesn't realize it, is a great manager of people. That being said, every time I read through a paralegal textbook or open a paralegal magazine, I seem to find the same advice regarding the apparently inevitable bad supervising attorney.

To be clear, I've never personally experienced the bad supervising attorney, but he (or she) is supposedly rude, overbearing, and demanding. He or she treats nonattorney staff and probably everyone else... poorly. It is likely the bad supervisor is either a newbie and completely insecure about her place on the imaginary totem pole, or extremely experienced and has gotten away with the bad attitude for far too long for anyone to expect him to change.

Whichever one of these guys you run into, conventional wisdom seems to be "just deal with it." I heard of a situation recently in which a highly experienced paralegal described performing a task her attorney told her to do, only to have him yell at her later for doing it. Apparently the instructions he gave were ambiguous or not clearly stated. Suffice it to say, what he meant to instruct her to do and what she read were two different things. Rather than explain to him in a courteous and professional manner that there was a misunderstanding (so that such errors could be avoided in the future), she held her tongue and apologized. For what? I ask. For not reading his mind? For the sake of his ego? For fear of losing her job? No purpose is served by allowing your supervising attorney to believe something that is not true about your judgment and skills. If you have spent years working at something, giving it all your effort, you should not have to cower at your place of business. If anyone expects this, there is a major flaw in the system of your profession. Perhaps I am idealistic. Perhaps I can afford to say these things because I have a stellar Boss. Still, there is something wrong with that picture.

In my own paralegal text books, I came across various hypothetical situations where the correct answer was simply to accept the subordinate role and apologize profusely. Now, in matters of law, I am in complete agreement with the subordinate role. You won't ever catch me telling my Boss that my legal judgment is better than his. First, it just wouldn't be true. Second, even if it were, it wouldn't be my place to tell him so. However, in matters of basic management and administration, the only thing my Boss has on me is years of experience. There is no business management license that will suddenly allow one to manage a business. There is no administration license that suddenly allows someone to perform administrative duties in a business. This is not to say that I regularly exercise insubordination, nor would I. In my case, I have a lot of respect for my supervising attorney as a lawyer, a Boss, and a person. If I didn't, I would not be working for him. If he were a regular jerk, things would be different.

The first thing that would change is my job. Upon understanding that I had a bad boss, if I were working at the small firm I am now, I would immediately begin a job search. I know what you're thinking... what if the only lawfirms in your area all drink from the same water cooler? Well, if you try a few firms out and they all appear to employ snotty, horrible people, you can a) move (I know of some great attorneys around here... but don't even think about trying to move in on my job) or b) give up on the paralegal profession entirely. Luckily, as in most other fields, jerksters are the exception, not the rule, so you shouldn't have to resort to plan b.

In a bigger firm, the issue may be more complicated. But you never have to meekly accept disrespect and rude behavior from an attorney with whom you are working. It is my understanding that larger firms usually have supervising partners who govern associates and sometimes paralegals. It is also my understanding that larger firms usually have human resource departments. Before accepting that you will have to duck to avoid flying pens every day, or that you will have to bow before a daily dose of arrogant suggestions ( "Did you think I wouldn't want coffee this morning?"), I highly suggest approaching someone in a true management position to a) alert them of the situation and b) ask for tips on how to handle this person. Obviously, this should not be done to "rat out" the bad seed, but rather to give HR a heads up. If done in a professional and mature manner, such action can encourage management to take subtle action. It can also alert them to patterns of behavior that may be caused by something more than a superiority complex - drugs, alcohol abuse or depression for example.

This advice goes for any job actually. Bad managers don't deserve good employees. When I was a senior in highschool, I was a hostess at a restaurant. We were having a particularly bad night when our manager came to the hostess stand and started pitching a true fit. He threw his notebook across the room and yelled at us in front of a crowd of customers. I did not walk out, though I wanted to very badly; rather, I quietly started preparing to leave the job. No burnt bridges, no more bad boss. Criticism, I can take. Guidance is necessary. Though I've never experienced it, discipline may sometimes be needed. But rudeness, haughtiness and superiority complexes from someone in a supervisory role? No thank you.

If you are working hard and are competent at your job, you should not have to accept disrespect from people with whom you work. If you have a job where this is the status quo, for your sake, please start looking for a new one. It is not good for the individual, for the paralegal profession, for the legal field, or for the business world in general, to accept and thereby promote haughty/bad/rude behavior from attorneys, or anyone, for that matter, who is in some sort of supervisory role.

I suppose I break tradition when I say these things. Perhaps I'm too insubordinate for my own good. But come what may, I respect myself and my chosen profession. I am no one's doormat. And neither are you.


  1. Great topic. I could tell you some stories. But, I shouldn't, so I won't.

    I'll just say that in my 35 years of working for lawyers, I can't think of one who wasn't "difficult" (for lack of a better word). Some of them were, in fact, called jerks by others. However, I consider them all to have been good or great bosses (except for one, maybe) because of mutual honesty, which led to mutual respect.