Archive for the ‘Class structure’ Category

Every firm has at least one: the secretary with the “holier than thou” attitude; the senior paralegal who tries to assign work to a junior associate; the office administrator who tries to tell you how to run your case.

A reader posted this question the other day: “[C]ould you write about bullying of junior associates by support staff like paralegals and secretaries? I would be interested in that one…yeah.”

Let me start by offering a distinction between perceived bullying and actual bullying.  Perceived bullying is when a junior associate feels threatened when a secretary or paralegal has greater knowledge and makes it known.  Actual bullying is, well, bullying — verbal or psychological abuse or intimidation.  Put downs, screaming, punching… okay, maybe not punching, but you get the idea.

Actual bullying is in some ways the simpler of the two to address.  Bullies will always exist in this world.  They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are certainly not limited to support staff.  There are partner bullies and associate bullies.  You can spot a bully a mile away for his or her ability to intimidate and threaten others.  These are the people who everyone tries to avoid, no one wants to deal with, and almost no one crosses.  They transcend class, gender, age — but they have one thing in common: they are tolerated by the firm.  Surprisingly, bullies are generally accommodated and given wide latitude to roam the halls and terrorize their victims.  Why?  Because they tend to be incredibly competent.  If they weren’t, they’d be thrown out in a billable minute.  Bad attitude + bad work product = fired.  Unfortunately, bullies–despite their bad attitudes–are actually productive, competent workers (sometimes the best at what they do), and their attitudes are therefore forgiven, ignored, or otherwise swept under the rug.

Perceived bullying, on the other hand, is a more complicated issue.  In this scenario, when a junior associate feels like he or she is being “bullied,” it may arise from the fact that the particular staff member has superior knowledge or experience.  This happens frequently at law firms, yet it’s an issue that generally does not get addressed.  Here’s the scene: entry-level associate “Junior” waltzes into large, prestigious BigLaw firm armed with a J.D. from Stanford or Harvard.  Junior has succeeded his entire life; he’s a winner.  BigLaw is his very first job.  He is smart as all heck, but as green as a cucumber.  He can analyze fact patterns better than anyone else, but doesn’t know the first thing about practicing law.  Junior has no clue that a brief filed in the C.D. Cal requires 14 point font, doesn’t know whether or not to count weekends when calendaring, doesn’t realize that he needs to have a document production copied before reviewing it.

Along comes our legal secretary “Mandy.”  She’s had 25 years of legal experience as a secretary, and has spent the last 18 years at BigLaw firm.  She knows the court filing procedures of every district in the state like the back of her hand.  Federal court, state court, appeals court–you name it, she knows it.  Mandy is not an actual bully, but at her age, she has little tolerance for young first-years like Junior telling her what to do when it’s clear he doesn’t have the slightest clue.  So when Junior tells her the way in which to file a brief, she tells him he’s wrong, and it has to be done another way.

Bullying?  or just necessary growing pains for Junior?

It’s a complex issue because so much of it depends on context.  In the example above, Junior was simply wrong.  And if you’re wrong, and your secretary corrects you, I’d hope that you would be thanking her for saving your butt instead of getting defensive over a perceived breach of etiquette.  On the other hand, there are grayer areas, multiple ways in which to do something where Junior may want to have it done one way and Mandy says, no, I’ve been doing it this way for years and I’m not changing now, especially for a young squirt like you.  Those issues can be addressed, but in delicate ways.  That will be the subject of a future post.  For now, I leave you with this thought:

If you feel like you’ve been bullied, ask yourself this: is Mandy really an actual bully, or are you just sensitive to the fact that you don’t have a clue as to what you’re doing?


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Ancient Greece had patricians, plebians, freemen, and slaves.  India had its caste system.  The feudal society in 12th century Europe had lords, guild masters, journeymen and serfs.  The capitalist society of 19th century England had capitalists, landlords, petty bourgeois. peasants and wage laborers.  And in the modern law firm in the United States, there are three main classes:  partners, associates, and support staff.

This week’s theme deals with the class structure seen within law firms, and how that affects relationships among partners, associates and staff.

Since we are nearing the holidays, I’d like to begin this week’s posts by talking about the firm holiday party.  You may already have received your invitation to this year’s party.  Ostensibly, this is a time for everyone at the firm to get together in a social setting sans the stress, drama, and pressure of the daily job.  The reality is more like a weird psychology experiment.

Let me explain.  If you work at a large law firm (a.k.a. BigLaw), you likely have experienced the class structure on some level firsthand.  Partners are the rulers; they have the power to hire or fire associates and staff, so you generally do what you’re told.  The jobs of the staff (secretaries, paralegals, IT, WordPro, receptionists) are to support the attorneys–both partners and associates.  While they take directions from both partners and associates, they know that the people really with the power are the partners.  Associates occupy a weird middle ground.  On the one hand, they follow partner’s orders just as support staff do; on the other hand, they also give their own orders and have a say in staff reviews (which translates into staff bonuses).

At BigLaw, this class structure allows partners to get what they want, when they want it, any time they want it.  Support staff generally try to do what they can to keep the partners happy.  Associates try to do both:  get the support staff to do what the associate wants in order to keep the partners happy.

This class division can be especially pronounced at some firms.  There’s no better symbol of this than lunch.  At certain firms, partners generally only lunch with other partners, associates with associates, and staff with staff.  Part of this has to do with simple behavioral science:  human beings tend to bond with other human beings who are in similar situations and who face similar challenges as they do.  But there’s a darker side to all this.  At these firms, there is a clear, although unstated, protection of image.  Junior partners are always looking to be associated with senior partners.  Senior partners want to lunch with the managing partner who wants to lunch with the founding partner.  Associates are looking to get into the good graces of a powerful partner to pave their way to partnership.  Staff look to influential associates and partners to protect them and achieve job security.  Everyone is looking at relationships as a way toward upward mobility.  The converse is also true: no one wants to lunch with a leper.

Naturally, this type of social distancing causes increasing gaps between the classes.  Associates who are disappointed in partners who reject their social invitations find themselves doing the same to staff.  Partners distance themselves from associates and staff as a way to maintain an unbalanced power relationship that they believe is essential for control and authority; essentially, they are unwittingly serving as “role models” for associates to behave in similar fashion with staff.  In the process, a culture is created that condones the walls erected between the classes.  It’s not right, but that’s what happens.

Back to the holiday party.  All of a sudden, the tacit understanding of expected behavior between partners, associates, and staff is turned on its head.  Partners can’t bark orders at associates and staff; associates and staff aren’t expected to run to the beck and call of partners.  The holiday party assumes, and requires, that for a few fleeting hours, that there be social parity among three distinct classes of people.  Partners, for the first time ever, are at a loss for words.  Are they really expected to socialize with associates and staff?  What do they say?  Staff, who are accustomed to viewing lawyers as their supervisors or bosses, are now seeing an uncomfortable vision of partners and associates acting like drunk partygoers instead of authoritative figures.  Needless to say, it’s weird.

This year, when you go to your firm’s holiday party, look around, observe the interactions between the classes.  If it all seems really bizarre, like some Tim Burton film, or just plain awkward, you know that you work at a firm where the hierarchy of classes is strictly observed.  On the other hand, if partners, associates, and staff intermingle freely and naturally, and you can’t differentiate who is a partner and who is a secretary, you know that firm has managed, despite the odds, to achieve a different culture.  It’s rare, but those firms do exist.

Happy holidays.


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