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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

July 4, 2016
Question

I’m an associate and work for a senior partner who is well respected, but unreasonable, hostile and unpredictable. I’m not sure I should leave – as his behavior may be common. How do I deal with him in the meantime?

answer
Julie Q. Brush

I guess my first question is why is a person who is unreasonable, hostile and unpredictable so well respected in your firm? This question is rhetorical – as I believe you are in a problematic situation and should think far more seriously about leaving. And regardless of whether this behavior is common among senior law firm partners or not, being in such a negative environment is not healthy or sustainable…for anyone. So assess all the factors that are virtuous about your employment: Perhaps you are receiving great experience. Perhaps the money is good. Perhaps it seems too soon to leave. Perhaps a job search is daunting… and balance these factors with the negatives. Then see where the chips fall to determine whether you stay or go.

In the interim, what’s the best way to deal with this volatile partner? Coping with these types of personalities is a bit like playing dodge ball so you’ll need to approach it as such. Below are a few suggestions. Note: I also recommend these suggestions for anyone working for such a boss – whether in house or law firm, whether lawyer, paralegal, administrating assistant etc.

Manage Your Expectations.

No matter what you do, how you behave or how perfect you are, this partner will not change his behavior. More importantly, you will never please him. This is not about You…it’s about him. So you need to manage your expectations and realize that your situation won’t change unless you leave or he does. By understanding and accepting these facts, you can shift your goals as you execute your plan to “deal” with him.

Over-communicate.

When a person is unreasonable, hostile and unpredictable, s/he often rewrites history to rationalize the behavior, avoid responsibility and get what s/he wants. In addition, this personality type tends to have control issues. In order to deal with him more effectively, over-communication is the best strategy. This doesn’t mean you should email your boss when you are taking a bathroom break, but providing weekly status reports on your projects, asking questions when something isn’t as clear and checking in to see if you are on the right track or if a direction change is needed. Email is a great avenue to communicate because it’s easy, fast and in writing. So if he’s trying to rewrite history, he’ll have documentation to take the wind from his sails. In addition, if he’s in the loop and confident that you are on the ball he’ll breathe a bit easier, which could calm the beast.

Be Reliable.

Mercurial boss or not, reliability is one of the most important qualities to possess as a professional (and human being for that matter). So do what you say you are going to do…and deliver. You won’t be perfect, but if he knows he can count on you, he’ll be a happier camper and his behavior will reflect it.

Be Responsive.

This goes hand in hand with reliability and is equally important – as a general proposition and particularly to your boss. His personality type won’t just want your quick action…he’ll demand it. So take inventory of your responsiveness to determine where you fall on the spectrum. How quickly to do respond to calls, emails, deadlines? Are you lickety split or do you drag your feet? Do you respond to all communications and requests or just the ones you deem important? If you’re not sure, ask a colleague or friend for honest feedback. If you see room for improvement, improve.

Keep Work Product Quality High.

You’re boss’s expectations are sky-high –and likely unreasonable. If they are, know that you won’t be able to meet them no matter how magnificent your work is (this falls into the manage your expectations category). All you can do is your best – and that is exactly what you should do. Don’t take shortcuts or have a “good enough” mentality. Take pride in your work and do a good job. You’ll feel good about yourself for doing so regardless of what he says or how he acts.

Stay Cool and Roll with the Punches.

When your boss has an episode, take a deep breath and keep your cool. His behavior is about him…not you. So try not to absorb it. Instead, shrug it off and move on to your next task. If he sees you calm, cool and collected when drama ensues, he’ll be less likely to throw a fit in the future. If you don’t control your emotions, they will build up and you’ll do or say something that could compromise your career.

Maintain a Positive Attitude.

Working for a difficult person is not a walk in the park. So maintaining a positive attitude is way easier said than done, I know. But studies have shown that people who are “up” are healthier and happier – especially in trying circumstances. They also have better coping mechanisms with stress and can deal with difficult people more effectively. If it’s difficult to muster up a smile, reflect on what you can be grateful for: you’ve worked hard and earned a prestigious academic degree. You are employed and an independent person who is supporting him/herself. You are building the foundation for your legal career. You have your health. You are an insightful person who is taking proactive steps to deal with a difficult situation. These might seem like pointless things to tell yourself, but they are not. These are exactly the kind of things successful people and high achievers think when trying to make the best of a challenging situation. This doesn’t mean you should ignore or rationalize behavior that treats you poorly. But if you choose to stay in your situation, a positive attitude will help a lot and may rub off a little on your boss.

It’s unfortunate that as an associate you are working for such a difficult person. This should be a time where you are enjoying life as a new lawyer and excited about your employer. But such is not the case. My first piece of advice is for you to think more seriously about leaving your firm. Life is too short – and given the amount of time in your life that you are spending at the office, you should work with people who treat you with respect. So I’d start seeking greener pastures now. But in the interim, implement the strategies above to make your situation more tolerable – and you’ll emerge from the experience a better professional.

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Comments

it is true, life is short. but it is better to live as protagonist and capable people, or mediocre? it is better to learn or copy someone? all people can teach something, but if your goals are high, it is better to learn from those who can really teach, no matter how hard is the way

From personal experience, when you have a boss like this, his writing style shifts with his moods, so identical discovery responses which earned you praise once can earn you scorn another. Ultimately, since he doesn't like any one thing, and you can't predict his demeanor, you'll find yourself in a meeting to talk about an "elegant departure." My two cents.

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