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When law firm workplace cultures are abusive

generation-jd-jessica-markhamWith my involvement with the local bar association and my relationships with both older and younger attorneys at other firms, I’m in the fortunate position to be able to frequently discuss career development, mentoring, management and other nonlegal issues ancillary to the practice of law.

One topic comes up time and again. 

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been yelled at in the office. Cursed at. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been insulted. 

Hmm. I bet that resulted in a trip to human resources. Am I right? 

It didn’t? That’s weird. …

The topic I’m talking about is the frequently abusive law firm work cultures that we are so often subjected to and discouraged from discussing. Most of us work in small- or medium-sized organizations, not huge corporate settings like Google or IBM. There’s little or no management training, often no HR. Usually there’s not even a system of reporting bad work conditions because the place you’d report and the person you are reporting are one and the same.

I find law firms are way behind when it comes to work conditions, management and company culture. Being belittled at work is normal. Crying due to stress is normal. Working excessive hours. Emotional abuse. Fear. These things are often minimized or swept under the rug.

What can young attorneys do when often the problem boils down to senior attorneys abusing their authority?

I don’t know what we can do systemically to avoid abuses of power. But what I can say is that individually we can support one another in a million small ways. We can lean on one another. We can mentor others outside of our firms. We can normalize talking about our experiences in nonhushed tones. We can avoid victim shaming. We can challenge authority.

Midlevel attorneys can speak up when they see younger attorneys being mistreated. We can all request and pursue trainings through our bar associations to improve our practices.

Younger attorneys will one day be the legal leaders of the future and instead of perpetuating toxicity you are called to change things for the next generation.