Bullying in Law Firms: A Problem We Need to Discuss

Written by Helen Hsu

Apr 26, 2019
bullying in law firms

 

Incidents of bullying in schools are all too typical these days. We hear about it from our kids, our friends, the news…it’s everywhere. Less talked about, however, is bullying in the workplace, and more specifically, bullying in law firms. However, it certainly happens.

Trust me, I know.

Years ago, I was a newly seasoned attorney at a solo firm in New York City. My boss had a temper, creating an environment of tension and fear. I managed to stay out of his way…until one fateful day. I had drafted a pleading and submitted it to him for review. A few hours later, he handed it back to me. It was bleeding red with his edits and comments. Then his tirade began. I sat and listened to him as he yelled at me and told me I was never going to be a good attorney. He said I was incompetent and that he regretted hiring me. He then picked up his keyboard and slammed it towards me, breaking it. Then he threw his phone at me. He fired me a week later.

This happened nearly a decade ago, but I will never forget the fear, shock, and vulnerability I felt. While his phone missed hitting me, his words did not. They made me question my abilities, my intelligence, and my worth. I felt like a failure.

My story, unfortunately, has become all too common. According to a 2016 survey, 93% of lawyers at Am Law 100 firms have experienced some sort of bullying or disrespectful behavior by another colleague. Another study conducted by the International Bar Association found that about 43% of the 5,000 attorneys who responded had been bullied. More than half of these cases were never reported. And of those who did report the bullying, 76% said the response was inadequate or negligible.

We need to change this narrative.  Here’s what lawyers and law firms can do to put a stop to bullying in this industry:

If You are Being Bullied

  • Start and maintain a paper trail. As Lisa Barrow, a workplace bullying consultant, told Time, “Bullied employees must document their bullying experience as soon as possible so that they do not forget key information. This will help them to regain control over the situation.” Include as much detail as possible, such as where the bullying took place, when the bullying occurred, and what was said or done specifically.
  • Read your firm’s employee handbook/manual and specifically review the sections regarding workplace policies on harassment.
  • Set up a meeting with your Human Resources department (or the person who handles HR matters) and provide your documentation of the bullying incident or incidents. Essentially, you are asking them to intervene on your behalf, so you will need to provide them with as much information as possible.
  • Going to HR may be seen by law firm leaders as “complaining.” Be sure to ask your HR representative what policies are in place to protect you from retaliation. If you experience retaliation, document it and consider whether legal action is necessary.
  • Look for support from family, friends, a therapist, or anyone else with whom you feel comfortable.  Remember…you are not alone.

What Law Firms Can Do to Prevent Bullying

  • Institute a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying. Mandate that employees, partners, and other law firm leaders treat each other respectfully.
  • Once a zero-tolerance policy is adopted, the most critical thing is to follow through. If there is an incident of bullying, appropriate action against the perpetrator should be taken. A policy means nothing without action and consequences, which may include probation, suspension, and even termination.
  • Conduct training on workplace bullying with a focus on what constitutes bullying, how to combat it, and the resolution process. Training may be as casual as a lunch-and-learn or as intensive as a series of seminars addressing workplace bullying.

While it is the nature of law firms and their employees to be riddled with high tension and stress, there is absolutely no excuse for anyone to verbally abuse another staff member. Everyone is entitled to feel safe and respected at their place of work. In turn, the happiness of a firm’s employees will positively impact the firm culture and, yes, even its bottom line.

As for me, I am still an attorney licensed in both New York and Florida. The old childhood expression really holds true: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.