Bullying in law firms: how to cope

A law firm can be a stressful place to work, but have you ever wondered why? What’s the impact on you and ultimately the services you provide to your clients? The main factors which come into play are expectations, significance and certainty. Unfortunately add these three together and you have a breeding ground for stress and bullying. Here’s why…

Lawyers are generally high performers who have very high expectations for themselves and don’t want to lose. They strive for significance and don’t tolerate people who hold them up. Sometimes lawyers are blinkered to what is going on around them as they are so focused on their end goal. They can be impatient, rude, and vindictive to lawyers at other firms. On the other hand most lawyers truly care about their clients and colleagues. Having such a mix of people’s rules and values often leads to conflict.

A bully often values “certainty” and “significance” highly. This is true of most lawyers because of the nature of law. Lawyers need to be accurate and powerful to get results. When people start to feel under pressure, stressed or like they are losing control, they lash out to protect themselves. When emotions and uncertainty is high, logic and reasoning goes out the window. People make panicked, ill-thought-out decisions. When the decisions are wrong, they belittle, shout at and blame others rather than own up to their own failings.

When people feel backed into a corner, mess something up or someone is making them look bad, they often react with anger, fear or frustration. People often find it hard to admit when they have done something wrong because generally they care about what others think of them. The two biggest human fears are not being loved and being a failure. Sometimes it’s easier for a bully to fly into a rage or bully someone to take out the anger, jealously or frustration.

People often don’t speak up about being bullied for fear of losing their job. They put up with it until one day they can’t take it anymore. They may leave, turn to drink, drugs or have suicidal thoughts. This is why it’s so important to do something about it. Here are a few suggestions to help you defuse a bully…

  1. Buy the bully a coffee or cake, ask them how their day is and treat them as an equal. Here’s the reason why. Some bullies feel isolated, alone and insecure. To feel significant they have learnt that “throwing their toys out the pram” or belittling others gets them attention albeit the wrong type of attention. They want to be loved and appreciated like everyone else. Having driven people away, they often can’t understand why people don’t want to be around them and talk behind their back. Holding out the hand of friendship puts you in control and can quickly change the relationship around.
  2. Confront the bully directly in a neutral place with a neutral party present. This approach is not for everyone but taking it can be empowering and help to stop the behaviour. This may sound strange but sometimes the person doesn’t even realise the impact they are having on others. Maybe they are so stressed out themselves they have reverted to survival mode and cannot see beyond their protective bubble. Rehearsing what you want to say on video and providing solutions to issues which keep coming up can help move the relationship forward.
  3. Speak to a trusted colleague or HR about the situation. There may be an official firm procedure you should follow to help resolve the situation. Keep a diary of events, words, witnesses and situations.
  4. Think about your own thoughts and actions. Is there anything which you do which may set the person off? What is your attitude towards the person and your work? People pick up on non-verbal cues and act accordingly. If you are giving the person “evils” without realising it they are likely to react in an unpleasant way.

If you have been perceived to bully someone, speak to the person with a neutral person present and offer a sincere apology, say what steps you are going to put in place to stop it happening again. If you are struggling, seek help so your issues don’t impact on your colleagues, clients and family. LawCare helps legal professionals overcome difficulties and would be a great first step.

Everyone is entitled to have a safe, respectful workplace. Every member of the legal team is important because that’s what makes the law firm great. People make mistakes, unpredictable things happen, but handled in the right way means everyone can learn from it and move forward. Being honest with ourselves and treating everyone with respect makes a happier workplace.

Ruth Fenton is a solicitor, executive leadership coach and communications expert who specialises in helping junior and mid-level lawyers excel in their careers.