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Lawyer Used to Helping Others Finds Support for Self Lacking 03-15


Any ideas for support around my own trauma and the legal system’s inability to help? As a person who’s used to helping others, I’m looking for support around the idea that when I needed and asked for help – a rare occurrence – it never came; how do I get past that? How do I continue to work in a system that let ME down so badly? Also, how do I get beyond the fact that, as a lawyer, I couldn’t “fix it” or “fight it?” (Not a vicarious trauma situation). Thanks.


You may be referring to ways that lawyers and courts have not sufficiently come to your aid around your own traumatic experience.  This may relate to ways that neither the system nor individual lawyers’ professional acculturation prepares them well to deal with personal human experiences and feelings.

But the development of the lawyer assistance program was intended to at least provide support from a mental/behavioral health standpoint.  Unfortunately, many traumatic experiences are not ultimately met with what feels like personal justice (see, for example,  Yvonne Abraham’s compelling column in the March 22 Sunday Globe).

Counseling/psychotherapy still offers benefits, including in grappling with the fact that, despite one’s professional training, some things can be understood, shared, faced, etc., but not “fixed or fought.”  If you are a Massachusetts attorney and come to meet with us at LCL, we’ll do our best to refer you to needed services.

Verklempt Under Pressure 03/11

I’m a 2L and for the  past year I have found that whenever I feel under pressure or criticized I just  cry and cannot stop. I am terrified of actually practicing and losing it  whenever I face any sort of confrontation. I have always considered myself to be  a strong and independent woman, but am afraid I am not cut out for the  professional world. Do other female attorneys go through  this?

Though men tend to get more and earlier practice  in suppressing emotion, proneness to tears is by no means limited to females  (case in point: John Boehner); both female and male attorneys have shared your  experience. The kinds of stimuli and themes triggering tears will differ from  person to person, and the content of these themes can be useful to examine in  therapy.

Unfortunately, crying in a professional setting may be  inappropriate and may undermine your role — and in the practice of law  (depending to a considerable extent on the type of law practiced) one can expect  to be confronted/criticized/pressured repeatedly. You will probably become more  accustomed to these situations and develop a “thicker skin” over time, but there  is no reason not to get some help to accelerate the process.

Among the  therapeutic measures that might help:

• Becoming aware of and familiar with  your particular themes of vulnerability to tears, and their likely genesis, may  help you both accept the feelings (i.e., self-criticism is unnecessary and  counterproductive) and gain enough perspective to have less of a reflexive  reaction. • Just as cognitive-behavioral strategies can help those who are,  for example, impeded by panic attacks or phobic responses, similar approaches  may allow you to relearn your gut reactions to the types of pressure that get to  you. A therapist can also work with you on identifying the beliefs or  self-statements that go hand-in-hand with crying, and on modifying them. •  There are various other therapeutic techniques, including some of those  developed as treatments for trauma, that may have something to offer you in  reducing the intensity of some of these feelings. • Antidepressant  medications sometimes also “turn down the volume;” in fact, we have heard a  number of people complain that, on these medications, they “can no longer cry”  (at least on their current dosage) and miss it.

Your uncontrolled crying  seems tied to specific situations, suggesting that the phenomenon is essentially  psychological. However, it never hurts to get a thorough physical exam, to rule  out, for example, neurologic or hormonal factors.

There is a sense in  which your singling yourself out as a female is relevant to how we may picture  your predicament. As we learned from interviews with women in key positions at  large law firms (in our Spring 2001  newsletter), despite a vast increase in the proportion of woman attorneys,  the settings in which lawyers function have barely moved in the direction of  what is viewed (in a positive light) as a female mode of relating, and women who  do best in these professional environments learn to function within a narrower  range of emotion.

Devastated by Loss of Case 1/10

I represent individual employees and just lost a case and am devastated for my poor client. I did my best I know but I feel so responsible for this poor guy. Any advice?

In almost all types of law, attorneys, like doctors or therapists, are faced with “boundary” issues. One of them is the degree of personal emotional involvement in cases. When there is too little personal concern/empathy, clients can feel that they are really on their own, making the process more difficult for them and often interfering with lawyer-client collaboration. When, however, the lawyer is so involved, beyond the level of sympathy, as to lose sleep over a bad outcome, that is often no help to either the client or the practice. Sometimes there are further resources to which the clients can be referred (including therapists). Feel free to come in and discuss your own reactions with one of our clinicians – if you happen to be in solo practice somewhere near Boston, this is the kind of concern that often comes up in our monthly Solo Practitioners Forum.

Depressed in office, no one to talk and share my problems 8/06

I am rather depressed in office as there is no one to talk and share my problems. Since I am working for the head of a private firm and specially handling most of the confidential work, I feel very lonely and isolated. Everyone in office do not talk to me much. The main mental agony I am facing now is the person I work for does not talk to me and he ignores me very often. Whenever I talk to him he just replies with a word or two. I feel this is just a signal he is giving me that I am not so important to him. But I know that there is something happening without my knowledge and that he has a soft spot over somebody else in office who is facing a lot of family problems. I feel very upset and disappointed after hearing everything. Now I dont feel like coming for work and spend even a minute in office. But I cannot stay away as I have 3 dependants and find some money. I know this must be a very week point of mine. But I just cannot get over it. Please help and teach me how I should work and what I should do.

From the sound of your anonymously submitted question, you find yourself in a work environment in which you have no positive connections with others — not with your “boss” and not with your coworkers. That would not be ideal for anyone, and many people would be looking for another job.

But in reading your question, we also find ourselves wondering:

    • Are others really pushing you away as much as you think?
    • If they are, are they responding to some of your behaviors toward them, or to some subtle negative “signals” that they feel from you?
  • Is there a pattern of feeling isolated or excluded in prior jobs?

As these questions suggest, there may be value in looking at your own part in contributing to the distress you are experiencing.

We also wonder whether your life outside the office may not include enough friends and community – if so, you may be bringing all your social needs to the office, and hoping for more closeness and caring than you’re going to get there. If that’s the case, and we know it can be difficult if you’re raising kids, the best way to help yourself may be developing more connections with others when you’re not at work.

It could be helpful to review all of this in much more detail with a therapist/counselor. If you are a lawyer, law student, or lawyer’s family member, we can provide an initial evaluation and seek out a referral for you. If not, and if you give us a call, we may be able to give you names of some clinicians in your area.

Lawyer “doing very risky and, frankly, just plain bad things both professionally and personally.” 1/06

[slightly edited for length] I have become increasingly concerned about the personal and professional behavior of a lawyer I used to mentor. The lawyer in has been in practice only about seven years (as a second career). When he first sought my assistance as a mentor three years ago, he had good, sound and not unexpected questions about legal and practice issues in my field. He seemed then to be a thoroughly nice man. I assisted whenever possible and enjoyed the relationship very much. More recently, however, he has begun doing very risky and, frankly, just plain bad things both professionally and personally. He hired three young associates, all of whom left on bad terms. He has given very bad counsel to clients and has developed a reputation for rarely returning telephone calls. He has been sued for professional liability related issues on three occasions in the last year. He has told “stories,” to me and to other colleagues about other lawyers in our community that might be called simple gossip were they not so scatological in nature, potentially damaging and patently false. He has frequently lied about his own health and that of members of his family (even claiming life-threatening illness) in order to avoid or delay court appearances and other matters. He has become one of those unfortunate people around the Courthouse concerning whom other people shake their heads and roll their eyes, and his behavior seems to have become worse, not better. I have distanced myself from him both professionally and personally. I spoke with him about his behavior, but although he seemed to take our conversation to heart within days he was telling colleagues very odd things about me. The colleagues knew me well enough to find his statements false and nearly laughable, but the fact that he made them immediately after our serious discussion is disturbing. My real question is this: What, if anything, should I do? I have tried speaking with him as above. That didn’t work out too well. I’ve tried expressing my concerns to his wife. However, she has some clinical issues of her own and she spends a lot of time visiting family out of state. I have the awful sense that if the situation is simply ignored by everyone, including me, this man will become a real train-wreck. What can you suggest?

Sounds like this train wreck is already in progress, and your description provides an illuminating picture of how, when lawyers become involved in the BBO disciplinary process (which may well be among this train’s destinations), we find ourselves wishing that they had come to us years earlier.

It seems fairly likely that a significant mental health, and/or possibly addictive, problem is at work here, and its gradual progression may explain why things seemed fine a few years ago and have gotten worse and worse.

There is no way to force people to get help if they are unwilling (or unable to see the rationale), unless they present a clear and imminent danger to themselves or others. If this happens along a clinical dimension (e.g., he threatens physical harm, or behaves unsafely in connection with delusional thinking), he can be temporarily forced into treatment via police or an order from a psychiatrist or psychologist. If he behaves inappropriately in his role as a lawyer, and a complaint is filed (either by a client or by a colleague bound by the “snitch rule” if the misbehavior is very professionally serious), BBO pressure may provide an incentive to seek assistance. Sometimes people will respond to an organized “intervention” by friends and/or family (the more significant others involved, the more powerful). Should the individual then agree to assessment and referral, LCL is a readily available resource.

Our Winter 2002 newsletter focused on the issue of intervening with other lawyers, and is archived on this web site. To go directly to that newsletter (pdf file), Winter 2002.

Concern: Will partner remain stable after return from treatment facility? 5/05

I am a partner in our fairly large law firm. After a secretary, and several colleagues, expressed concern about a senior partner’s behavior (often seeming depressed and impaired by alcohol, although as far as we know his work has not suffered), several of us confronted him. He readily admitted to the problem, and has agreed to a month-long stay at a private facility. We were fortunate that he was so cooperative, since we really had no guidelines for handling the matter. We also wonder how we can be sure that he will continue, upon his return, to do whatever he needs to do in order to avoid slipping back to the condition that initially aroused our concerns.

LCL has two possible approaches to offer your firm. In managing this particular situation after the partner completes inpatient rehabilitation and/or a residential program, LCL’s longstanding Monitoring Program may be of use to him and you as a means of documenting his ongoing diligence in pursuing recovery. He, you, and LCL would sign a contract for follow-up (often for two years) during which time he would agree to a number of provisions including (a) frequent attendance at self-help group meetings; (b) frequent contact with an LCL volunteer, a lawyer in longstanding recovery; (c) random urine testing; and (d) LCL communication with his professional outpatient treatment providers. This process maximizes the likelihood of his sustaining recovery and continuing to function fully as a valuable contributor to the firm’s mission.

With regard to future concerns about lawyers/firm employees, your firm may want to consider adopting an alcohol/drug/mental health policy. The ABA developed standards for a “model policy” some years ago, and we also have copies of sample policies previously implemented by Boston firms. Typically, this kind of policy provides for: ? a committee of appropriate individuals (from various levels within the firm) who serve as a confidential point of contact; ? spelling out what kinds of drinking/substance use are unacceptable where the firm is involved; ? a mechanism to identify and intervene with those who are impaired but do not seek assistance; ? education/training for staff; ? a connection with a lawyer assistance program and/or employee assistance program; ? an understanding that recurrent episodes of poor performance or inappropriate behaviors will lead to separation from the firm, but that the act of accessing treatment will not.

Our hope is that Massachusetts law firms, like individual lawyers, will think of LCL as a supportive resource for these kinds of situations where personal health and professional functioning intersect.

Partner has become increasingly irritable, uncooperative and given to outbursts of temper 5/04

A difference of opinion exists between me and another partner about whether or not to address a problem developing with a third partner who, in the last several weeks, has been less attentive to his personal appearance and has become increasingly irritable, uncooperative and given to outbursts of temper. We are aware of the so-called “intervention” strategies used to address alcoholism, but there is no evidence of substance abuse and the quality of his work does not appear to be affected. I say it’s not our business until his work performance suffers. My partner disagrees. He says we should do something “before it gets worse and does affect his work performance.” What do you say?

Observing disturbing behavioral changes in a colleague always provokes concern, accompanied by mixed feelings and ideas about what to do, if anything. Some may believe it is easier to address such changes at the point that the firm is exposed to liability risks. Undeniable facts that verify the risk provide grounds for some kind of intervention, which serves to protect the firm as well as leverage the troubled lawyer toward remedial action and assistance. Even at this point, confronting a colleague about problem behavior evokes discomfort, e.g., fear of exacerbating the situation or guilt about perceived betrayal. Addressing changes in behavior that has not yet affected work performance may seem even more uncomfortable, intrusive, unwelcome, especially when withdrawal, anger or other negative behaviors already discourage even minimal pleasantries. However, if such behavior has persisted or progressed over a period of weeks, breaking the silence by sharing your observations and concern for the individual acknowledges the existence of a problem, its effect on him/her, yourself and others, and raises reasonable questions about eventual effects on performance. Discussing the issue in a private, caring and sensitive manner further conveys an expectation and confidence in the troubled lawyer’s ability to do something to get back on track.

In contrast, delaying action until all concerned are fed up or traumatized usually results in costly damage control and counter-productive over-reaction. However strenuously most of us would rather avoid it, confronting a troubled colleague may help prevent significant and unnecessary human and financial loss to both the individual and the firm. Therefore, we would advise addressing a problem sooner than later, thus protecting the individual’s career and the collective investment in the firm of all concerned. LCL can serve as a consultant to firms or law departments in which a member of the team needs the support and intervention of his/her colleagues.

I care very much for a man in solo practice who I think is depressed and/or alcoholic 3/04

I am a state-employed lawyer, and care very much for a man in solo practice who I think is depressed and/or alcoholic. Although in many ways an open person, he won’t discuss these issues or go to see a therapist. I’m not sure where to go from here. I value this relationship, but don’t want to find myself later wishing that I had extricated myself.

While most people, especially those who have become dependent on alcohol or drugs, tend to put off getting help and to deny the need for it, lawyers seem to be particularly adept at not facing their own problems. The very personality features that may facilitate their professional success work against their capacity to acknowledge and seek appropriate assistance. These characteristics (e.g., argumentativeness, stubborn persistence, focusing on externals and tasks over internal factors and feelings) are further reinforced in law school. Lawyers also tend to worry about their public image and professional standing more than other groups, so that many would rather continue to suffer from a problem than allow others to see them as in any way impaired. (Of course, this concern is not altogether unrealistic, but in its extreme form actually places professional image over personal survival.) As William Smith put it in his article in the January 2003 ABA Journal, “the very skills that make us good lawyers make us terrible, terrible patients.”

Getting someone, anyone, other than ourselves motivated to seek help is a huge and tricky task that can easily backfire. One strategy that has sometimes been successful is the so-called “Intervention.” This approach employs both social pressure (the same message from a number of significant others) and leverage (getting help as a condition of keeping a relationship or job) to persuade someone in denial to accept treatment. In your case, your use of such leverage would come from an honest place – your deep qualms about remaining closely connected to someone who avoids addressing significant problems. One possible scenario: first, you schedule one or two individual sessions for yourself (perhaps at LCL) to consider possible options; second, you invite him to join you for a subsequent session, based on your distress; third (if fortune smiles), he agrees to an individual assessment and recommendations. If he continues to ignore your concerns, you may ultimately determine that separation, though painful, is your best course. There are no formulas or simple answers in this kind of situation, but talking about it with a knowledgeable listener is likely to help you reach your own conclusions and decisions.

Are the lawyers who attend the Professional Conduct Group … convicted felons …who stole money from their clients? 10/04

Are the lawyers who attend the Professional Conduct Group most or all convicted felons and people who stole money from their clients. I am not a felon or a criminal at all. I never stole from a client or hurt any client at all. I would not feel comfortable around criminals or thieves. Would I be out of place in this group. I am all alone with this I cant even afford a lawyer and tell no one anything. Also is there any way to know ahead of time if there is anyone there I know?

Most of those who attend our Professional Conduct Group (for lawyers facing possible or likely BBO disciplinary action) are not in trouble criminally. A few have been convicted of crimes and even served time. However, many have mishandled client funds. Some have done so without realizing it; others told themselves they were just borrowing money for an immediate expense and have repaid the client fund soon afterward (not OK). Very often, these behaviors would not have occurred if not for depression or an addiction. Among those who attend the group, almost all did not mean to harm clients.

You can certainly come for an individual evaluation here at LCL, since that will be confidential, and we may also be able to advise you on finding a lawyer that you can afford. There really is not a way to know in advance who else is in the group, since that involves the group members’ own confidentiality. But if you walked into your first group session, saw someone you knew, and decided not to stay because of that, all the person would know is that you had some, unspecific reason for attending. For some people, that could mean as little as that a client reported them for not returning phone calls, or even that no complaint has been filed but they anticipate that it will happen.

Boss is “Unpredictable, Hostile, Critical, Belittling, Even Subtly Threatening.” 10/03 and 12/03

I am extremely upset about my boss’s behavior toward me, to the point that I now dread going to a job I otherwise love, and am considering leaving. As a 3rd year associate, I am working under the aegis of a law firm partner whose behavior has changed from “normal/stressed” to increasingly unpredictable, hostile, critical, belittling, even subtly threatening. In reaction, I find my self-confidence eroding and my anxiety mounting. The organization seems to accept the partner’s behavior – perhaps because she’s been here nearly 20 years – which leaves me with no recourse except to vent my feelings to a couple of my colleagues who sympathize but can’t really help. Can you offer any suggestions? The situation you describe is not as uncommon as you may think and can indeed be very difficult to manage, especially when the organization lacks the policy or structure to address it. You don’t mention whether any of your predecessors have had a similar experience with this partner, which may help you to take it less personally. We can only speculate as to explanations for your boss’s behavior, e.g., adverse personal circumstances or mood or substance abuse disorder. Any of these might produce symptoms of irritability, unpredictability, blaming, etc.

But there is another key player in this scenario – you. Whenever we have a powerful reaction to a particular individual, chances are that this person’s behavior is triggering a vulnerability in your own psychological make-up. The situation becomes more potent and complex when, as in your case, the two parties occupy different positions of power, e.g., boss/employee, parent/child, teacher/student. Confusing emotions can be stirred up that may cause us to question our own perceptions, or wish to flee.

Perhaps it will ultimately be in your best interest to move on to another job. But before taking action, we would recommend conferring with a professional. When this kind of emotional turmoil disrupts one’s normal social and occupational functioning, a therapist can serve as a sounding board and help to clarify feelings and gain some objectivity. You would then be in a position to consider possible courses of action, feeling less stressed/powerless and more aware of your options. An assertive and pro-active (rather than reactive) response is more likely to bring about the best possible outcome.

LCL’s clinicians are available for a timely consultation on matters like these. If the situation calls for more than a few sessions, we can assist you with a referral matched to your needs (and your health insurance). Our services are completely confidential, free and easily accessed with one phone call.


I read with some concern your column in the October 2003 issue of the MBA Lawyers Journal. As a managing partner of our law firm, I have come to understand that the behavior exhibited by some partners toward associates is, indeed, inappropriate. The characteristics of “unpredictable, hostile, critical, belittling, even subtly threatening” behavior that the associate as described are very real, and I believe legitimately upsetting to associates. How can an attorney who cares deeply about his/her professional development not take this conduct personally? I would be very sorry to see any associate, including particularly an associate of this firm, believe that a distressed reaction to partner conduct of this nature is a problem with that associate’s emotional or psychological makeup.

What I find most disheartening about these situations is that associates rarely call matters like this to the attention of anyone in the firm who might have the ability to affect a change in the working conditions. While the associate writing the letter has vented his or her feelings to “colleagues who sympathize but can’t really help,” I wonder if any of the colleagues are partners themselves with a seniority level sufficient to address the issue. I would certainly hope that an associate in my firm experiencing this level of anxiety would speak to me or some other member of our Executive Committee. Perhaps this is further advice that LCL can offer to associates who raise this kind of concern.

Very truly yours,
Lauren Jennings
Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP

LCL’S RESPONSE (published 12/03):

We truly appreciate Ms. Jennings’ response to our October column about an associate who described increasingly debilitating anxiety as a result of working under a partner who had become “unpredictable, hostile, critical and belittling.” Because the firm was portrayed as accepting of the partner’s behavior, we recommended that the associate seek to better understand the intensity of his/her reaction and to make any career decision from a more assertive, pro-active position.

Our experience suggests that corporate cultures that tolerate negative or abusive behavior among their personnel, including toward subordinates, are often not prone to self-correction and change, or to addressing complaints from those without significant status in the organization. We have sometimes been surprised by the degree of various types of inappropriate behavior that is tolerated from partners in law firms, especially from those valued as “rainmakers.” Associates generally interpret this behavior as consistent with firm practices and values, geared toward honing that adversarial and aggressive edge that presents the appearance of strength and confidence.

We endorse wholeheartedly your recommendation of raising the issue with a partner with sufficient seniority to take action, and we commend your firm for this approach. Often, associates perceive the choice to confront a superior’s abusive behavior as a “career decision,” fearing potential political fallout and even a foreclosed opportunity at that firm, having been perceived as weak and complaining. They struggle in the “sink or swim” atmosphere and strive to emulate their superiors who may appear to prioritize productivity over civility, balance, and personal wellbeing.

We would encourage firm partners/administrators to consider adopting a practice such as the one you describe. Ideally it would be bolstered by a policy statement that advocates mutual respect and support, and outlines a process of problem solving and conflict resolution. If taken seriously by those at the top, such an approach could ultimately make for a stronger and better functioning firm. We also welcome any further feedback/commentary on this issue from readers.

Overburdened by Partner’s Demands, Making Errors, No Support 5/03

I am a relatively recently admitted attorney (2 years). I used to work for a collection firm but for the past year, I have been employed in a small firm. I work for a Partner that I personally like very much but he is extremely demanding of me. In addition, he often expects me to handle matters that are completely outside of my expertise. He expects to be able to give me these matters and handle them soup to nuts. He also gets annoyed when I ask him questions and often offers nothing in the way of guidance because the matters I’m working on are “relatively small, simple matters”. He also doesn’t feel that I have a lot on my plate. In fact, I have well over 100 active, different cases in greatly different areas of the law. Recently, I have gotten so bogged down that I cannot get out of my own way. I have angry clients calling me and I often cannot get to their cases for a very long time. He is aware of this but continues to pile more work on. He sometimes asks for a status report on my cases but all he wants to know is what stage the case is in. I tell him, what’s going on and the deadlines, etc. He never asks beyond that. He almost never reviews things like pretrial memos, etc. Recently, my caseload has caused me to make mistakes on a couple of cases which are set for trial this month. These are simple but potentially costly mistakes that I would not have made if I had the time to devote to my cases that they deserve. I tried to obtain continuances but opposing counsel and the Court refused. I am totally beyond burned out. I can think of nothing but the growing pile of work on my desk. It is the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. I have started having chest pains. My doctor says they’re just anxiety attacks. It has gotten to the point that I sit at my desk literally crippled with fear. I cannot pick up an old file. I cannot pick up a new file for fear that I’ll do something wrong due to the rushed way I have to do things. I am contemplating a career change. How do I get help?

Unfortunately, we have heard what sounds like your story many times, relating to firms of all sizes – attorneys with limited experience who find themselves awash in expectations with minimal support/guidance. We hope that it does not typify all law firms (since we would not usually be contacted by lawyers with no complaints), but clearly it is all too common. Perhaps it is related to the billable-hour culture, in which the partner may not be inclined to provide services (i.e., guidance) that do not in themselves generate income, or maybe it has more to do with the partner’s own workload.

You are correct to conclude that it would be unhealthy for you to maintain the status quo in which you are obsessed with worries, almost crippled by anxiety, and trying to assume responsibilities that are beyond your current knowledge or skills. This unacceptable situation can be addressed both internally and externally. Internally, probably with the assistance of a therapist, you could look at your own reactive patterns – for example, are you unassertive, or would you actually be able to handle many of these cases well if you could achieve a more relaxed/optimistic stance? Externally, the primary options would be to (a) respectfully but assertively confront the partner (and/or another partner with the power to change things) with the fact that you are being asked to measure up to an unworkable set of expectations and that this arrangement must be modified, and (b) if that does not or cannot work, prepare to leave the firm (in a manner that is most constructive for your own needs and future). Given the level of your current anxiety, you may also need a brief medical leave. If you continue to make errors on cases, you could be jeopardizing your career. While tranquilizers would temporarily relax you, they are not an ideal ongoing tool, given the potential for dependence/addiction. Modern antidepressants, which often reduce anxiety as well as depression, may be something to consider over time, especially if you find yourself tending toward much anxiety and worry in future jobs as well.

Many lawyers do contemplate career changes, enough to have led the Massachusetts Bar Association to plan a conference “300 Ways to Use Your Law Degree.” [This was held 5/03.] We often see lawyers over-reacting, that is, concluding that they need to abandon the entire field when, in some cases, a change of setting and approach will allow them to feel more satisfied with a career within the field of law. As usual, our suggestion is that you arrange a confidential, more detailed assessment at our office. We can then help with referrals, in this case to a therapist and/or career counselor or coach.

Partner “Blows Up at Clients” 6/02

I am a senior associate, and was recently asked to work with a partner who I think is very narcissistic. I am finding it very difficult to deal with him. In particular, I am tired of having to manage things when he blows up at clients. His personality closely mimics my mother’s and I was never good at dealing with her either. When he starts ranting, I become paralyzed and at a loss for words, which is not the norm for me. Then I go home and take it out on my family. Any suggestions?

If you’re accurate in sensing that this person is narcissistic, then his personality can indeed be difficult to deal with. Lawyers with this profile may work well with certain types of clients, while with other clients and/or coworkers, their behavior can be tremendously aggravating.

The person who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality will have many of these traits:
· Grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating his achievements.
· Preoccupation with fantasies of power and success.
· Believes self to be “special,” and can only associate with or be understood by other high-status people.
· Need for excessive admiration.
· Sense of entitlement and unreasonable expectations of others.
· Interpersonally exploitative.
· Lack of empathy; cannot identify with the feelings and needs of others.
· Often envious of others.
· Arrogant behaviors and attitudes.

Obviously, certain struggles are inherent in working with (and in your case being raised by) someone with this personality type. It is common that the dynamics of the workplace mimic those of the home. That is, in the group environment of the job, people often reenact the same roles that they formerly played in their families of origin. You are more aware of this than many, in that you can see the similarity between the partner’s style and your mother’s, which accounts for why you feel “stuck” in your responses to him.

It may be helpful to realize that, at their core, narcissistic individuals actually don’t feel very good about themselves, and that they work hard to prevent anyone (including themselves) from finding out. Often feeling a general sense of emptiness, they strive to fill themselves up, often with superficial, tangible trappings of success.

In your situation, we would offer the following suggestions:
1. Be aware of the power differential (he is the partner, you are the associate), and don’t over-play your hand.
2. Recognize (and allow yourself to benefit from) his strengths, without being insincere or patronizing.
3. Offer to interface with the clients to whom you are better suited, without diminishing his importance.
4. Don’t expect him to “understand” how he alienates others or hurts their feelings.
5. Set some limits with him around behavior that is abusive to you; be matter-of-fact about it, and don’t belabor the point.
6. When he gets angry or explosive, remind yourself that you are not a child, he is not your mother, and that you need not be afraid. You don’t have to feel responsible for his behavior or absorb it in a personalized way.

In your efforts to work with this partner, you might benefit from discussing this difficult situation with with one of LCL’s clinicians and working on strategies.

Coworker has Romantic Interest 11/01

If I think a coworker is romantically interested in me, what do I do? The problem is we are both married.

When married coworkers (presumably, in this case, at a law firm or agency) have affairs it generally reflects problems in their respective marriages that have not been adequately addressed. This “acting out” of feelings of anger, sadness, lack of fulfillment, etc. by starting a new romance can be appealing for the excitement and boost to your self-esteem, but generally leads to pain for all involved. Our recommendation is that, for the time being, you maintain distance from the person involved and come right to LCL for an evaluation of your situation, and referral for further assistance.

Works for Attorney who is “Unraveling Before My Eyes 10/01

I work for another attorney as an associate. I feel that this attorney is constantly placing me in ethical dilemmas. He says he will take care of things and he does not. He does not return clients’ phone calls and it seems there are more and more angry clients calling. I think he is unraveling right before my eyes. I’m not sure what to do. His practice is collapsing and if he would just take some time off, I think I could turn the ship around, but I don’t feel comfortable being that candid with him. I feel that he cannot accept that he is losing it and that he may try to make me a scapegoat. I think he might be drinking or gambling on or something that is distracting his focus. How can I help him without upsetting him?

It is sad to have to watch this kind of “unraveling” of a person and a practice. Obviously, this attorney’s behavior is likely to eventually generate complaints to the Board of Bar Overseers, and we would all prefer to see him recognize his problems, whatever they are, and get the right kind of help before that happens, rather than after.

If you were his peer or superior, we might be discussing some kind of “intervention,” in which he would be confronted and directed toward treatment as an alternative to your breaking off collaboration with him. Although that may be an option for others in his life if they are aware of the problem, it does not sound like a safe alternative for you, given your position as associate and your gut sense that it could backfire on you. It also sounds as if there may be some potential for negative fallout for you even if you take no action and are not intentionally scapegoated. Of course, you should not, yourself, engage in actions that are clearly unethical. Beyond that, you may have few alternatives other than tolerating the situation or leaving it.

We would be glad to have you come in for a confidential discussion, since a more detailed analysis might yield additional ideas, and also for support, perhaps, for the taking the initiative to move toward a new job.

Partner Has Undergone Marked Personality Change 7/01

One of my fellow partners [in a medium-sized firm] seems to have undergone a marked personality change in recent months. She has been much more irritable, and less careful about her hygiene and attire. Worse, she has been forgetting meetings or coming to them unprepared. Although there have been no client complaints, I believe I’ve seen concern on their faces. I’ve had some informal discussions with my peers, one of whom thinks it’s an alcohol problem and that we should insist she get help. Does that sound right?

The fact is that your colleague’s changed behavior clearly means that something is going on, but that you don’t know what it is. Yes, alcohol or drug abuse can create these symptoms, but so can depression, family stresses, neurological impairment, and any number of conditions. Fortunately, it’s not your job to make a diagnosis.

This would be an ideal time to refer to your firm’s alcohol/drug/mental health policy – or, if your firm doesn’t have a policy you may wish to formulate one as a result of this experience. Such policies recognize that these kinds of problems, though they can have great negative impact on work and other relationships, ideally call for treatment rather than punishment, and that effective treatment is preferable to termination and starting over with someone new. Once developed, the policy provides an even-handed mechanism for intervening with any employee/partner (no one is exempt), often via a specially constituted and trained committee. [For more detailed information on alcohol/drug/mental health policies for law firms, contact us.]

In your case, you will probably want to arrange a meeting of some of the partners to discuss your observations and concerns, and to prepare for a follow-up meeting with the individual to strongly encourage evaluation and treatment. A lawyer assistance program (such as LCL in Massachusetts) is a key resource to you in planning and carrying through this process, evaluating your partner’s condition, and recommending treatment options. It is important to note that an inadequately planned “intervention” can do more harm than good, while an appropriate and caring approach can sometimes resurrect a career.

Demeaning Boss=Recreation of Childhood? 7/99

It’s hard for me to believe or admit, but I’ve been working for the same demanding, demeaning boss at the same firm since I finished law school some seven years ago. I put in all kinds of extra hours and essentially devote my life to the firm, and I’m not sure why, except that I feel as if I must please the boss no matter how little allegiance or respect he shows me. My girl friend thinks that I’ve recreated my family (father was alcoholic), and I’m trying to decide it that’s psychobabble or valid.

While it may be uncomfortable to admit, your girl friend probably has a point. It is not unusual for people raised with an alcoholic or addicted parent (many of them high achievers, and some of the most reliable employees) to grow up with characteristics that are contrary to their own wellbeing. These may include an exaggerated sense of loyalty or need for approval, an overemphasis on control, a sense of “faking it” or wearing a mask, and considerable difficulty setting reasonable limits or making their own needs a priority. In many instances, they can barely identify their own feelings or wishes, yet are heavily burdened by “shoulds,” basing their sense of self-worth on what they can do for others.

How an adult child of an alcoholic (ACOA) adapts to life is determined in large part by how and when the alcoholism has expressed itself in parental behavior. Typically, in their attempts to keep the family afloat while under the stress of active alcoholism, the children adopt strategies that develop into family roles, e.g., “family hero,” “scapegoat,” “lost child,” and “mascot.” The essential problem for the adult whose personality evolved in such a family is that s/he will continue to rely on ways of adapting that worked well to help the alcoholic family survive but that are maladaptive and unnecessary in their own lives. Your example is a common one.

Just knowing about these patterns may be of some help, but most people cannot simply choose to override longstanding personality characteristics; rather, they need help and support. This can come from an appropriately trained therapist and/or from a peer support group. In Massachusetts, self-help meetings for ACOAs can be found either through Al-Anon and CODA. Al-Anon (781/843-5300), the 12-step group for family and friends of alcoholics, has certain designated ACOA meetings. CODA (Codependent Anonymous, at 978/952-6510) is another 12-step group specifically for those with relationship problems originating in dysfunctional families. There are also a number of good books on the subject. Two of the early books that were part of the foundation of the ACOA movement are Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Woititz and It Will Never Happen to Me by Claudia Black. Both are likely to be found at your bookstore or library.

Young Associate’s Crush on Married Partner 3/99

Over a period of months, I (a married woman and partner in a large firm) have had occasion to spend considerable working time with a young male associate in our firm. He has become what I would consider a good friend. Unfortunately, he has developed a crush on me, and on one occasion, when we were socializing with a client and had had one drink too many, I let him kiss me. Now he is calling me almost every day seeking to get closer. I’d like to keep him as a friend, but I don’t want to jeopardize my marriage.

It is very unlikely that you will be able to comfortably return this relationship to the realm of “friends,” because a line has been crossed, both in terms of the kiss and with regard to your differing levels of position in the firm. Without knowing the specifics (and we would invite you to come in and discuss them), we would lean toward recommending that you firmly advise your associate that there can be no personal relationship, and seek, to whatever extent possible, to have another partner work with him. This relationship would likely not survive even if you were single, since it is based partly on his position of looking up to and relying on you as someone senior to him. Why you have been drawn to him is a question that you may wish to address in a short-term course of therapy.

Confront Partner’s Drinking? 3/99

I’ve become concerned about one of my partners in our small firm. She often “works at home,” and sounds as if she has been drinking when I call. In any case, she has clearly been withdrawn since losing her sister about a year ago. The other partners and I feel as if we must confront her, especially since clients have begun asking questions, but we’re not sure whether alcohol is the problem.

This does sound like a potentially complicated situation, in that it may reflect a drinking problem, a problem with grief or depression, or possibly both. You can’t possibly expect to diagnose the precise nature of her problem (it may even take some time for a professional to do so). Nevertheless, you, the other partners, and perhaps one or more significant others may still be in a position to gently but firmly confront your colleague about the changes in her behavior and your reasons for concern. The result could be that you will expect her to get professional evaluation and treatment — in this case, provided by someone experienced in addressing both mood and alcohol/drug problems. If you like, you, as a concerned party, may come to LCL to meet with one of our clinicians and plan a course of action. We can also provide referrals to the right kinds of mental health/substance abuse professionals, and provide follow-up support.

Can’t Explain Own Professional Behavior 10/08

After working almost 20 years at my firm (which specializes in real estate), I have suddenly handled (or failed to handle) a case in a way that I never did before. Essentially, I put off and avoided dealing with this matter (even, at some point, leaving mail unopened) for months. The case was annoying in some ways, but certainly not more difficult than most of my work. Fortunately, with the help of colleagues, no harm was done, but my own behavior confuses me. On all my other cases, I continued to work to my usual (high, if I may say) standards. My anomalous lapse in attention comes at a bad time, when the firm has been tightening its belt and reconfiguring expectations, so I am concerned as to how this episode will affect my future there. In other respects, my life is going really well – my mood is pretty good, my family life is gratifying. Why would I shoot myself in the foot this way?

While the term “acting out” is most often used with regard to more antisocial, impulsive, or overtly destructive behaviors, its essential meaning may apply to your situation – expressing an inner emotional conflict through behavior rather than in other ways (such as talking, writing, or problem-solving).
People in the grip of significant depression or addiction often fail to attend adequately to a range of responsibilities; in your case, however, you addressed your other duties appropriately, and this one stood out as an exception. Likewise, your lapse does not sound like an ADHD-type failure to remain organized or focused. Instead, one clue we hear is your mention about the changes that are afoot at your firm. Perhaps, after all your years there, you are not thrilled with these changes. (So many recent developments at law firms seem to have more to do with business and competitive survival than with fulfillment in the practice of law.) And perhaps there was something about this case that, for you, captured the aspects of your current work life that elicit frustration, anger, or anxiety.
Of course, we could be completely off the mark on reasons why this case may have been significant to you – it could, for example, involve feelings toward the client or another attorney involved in the case – but for the purpose of this column we are highlighting the fact that sometimes our actions express feelings that we would rather not acknowledge consciously, and quite often those actions are counterproductive. Even though you are functioning well, we would still be inclined (if you came for evaluation at LCL) to refer you for a bit of talk therapy, where one of the key goals would be increasing your awareness of your true feelings, wishes, etc. and providing a place where (probably unlike work) it is appropriate to express them. The more that you are aware of the thoughts and emotions that you, like most people, have “running in the background” unnoticed, the better equipped you will be to make good choices for yourself and to avoid ensnaring yourself in traps of your own making.

Young Lawyer Feels Isolated at Big Firm 3/07

I am a young lawyer at a large multi-national firm in Boston, and I am feeling incredibly isolated. Although there were over 30 people in my “class” of associates, I rarely have time to socialize with them, even at firm events or for short lunches during the week. My friends in solo practice say they feel isolated too, and that makes sense to me. But I work at a big firm and am surrounded by people every day, yet I still feel alone and miss contact with others. Why do I feel so alone, and how can I overcome these feelings?

It is not uncommon for new lawyers in all types of practice to feel isolated, particularly in today’s legal environment, where every 6 or 12 minute increment spent visiting with a colleague or at lunch with a friend is defined as time not billed. Lawyers are trained in law school to be focused, driven, and emotionally detached. As a result, they face a risk of generalized detachment — professionally from clients, peers, and colleagues; and, in personal life, from everyone else –sometimes including themselves.

As a new lawyer, you probably also feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of your work, much of it done alone in the library or at the computer. Of the skills you mastered in law school, research and writing are most readily transferable to your duties for the firm. Your ability to work as a team member and collaborate on sophisticated legal issues will develop over time. During that process, be sure to speak up with your supervisors, requesting a variety of types of projects, including those that require working with other lawyers. Some of your time on these assignments may ultimately be written off, but you will benefit in the long run.

It is also important to establish healthy patterns and boundaries early in your career at the firm. Make plans with your coworkers or friends outside of the firm for lunch, walks, and after-work events, and include them in your daily calendar. Then, treat them as you would a client or partner appointment – keep them. Although there will be times when this is truly impossible, your general rule should be to respect your time as much as the firm’s. That approach will allow you to build and maintain connections, reducing isolation and ultimately making you a happier and better employee.

Learning from Narcissistic Lawyer’s Obnoxious Behavior 9/09

I’d just like to get this off my chest and get your comments on it. A number of us who were in law school at the same time have remained in touch or kept up with one another’s careers. I have great respect for people like Denise, who devotes herself to CPCS family cases, puts in more hours than she can bill for even at those paltry rates, and cares more deeply about some of the kids involved than their own parents seem to. Or Bill, who always goes the extra mile for the clients of his small practice, and for his 2 young associates, but struggles to pay his bills. These are very decent, caring, humble people. On the other hand, there is Fletcher, who quickly rose to partner in his firm and whose name or photo keeps popping up in various prominent positions, but whose real specialty is delegating his work to others. Or George, who is full of himself, wears expensive suits, shows no real interest in people, but attracts a slew of very wealthy clients to his pricey practice. Do other people notice this?

Yes. Essentially you are talking about narcissism, in some of its many forms. There is a level of “healthy narcissism” – it is good for us to be able to appreciate our own admirable qualities and to carry positive expectations about our potential impact on work and relationships – which is ideally balanced by qualities such as humility and empathy. Those who achieve such a balance are better able to manage relationships and do reasonably well in their work lives.

But the world is full of people who are, perhaps, overly impressed with themselves and whose concerns focus almost exclusively on themselves (or on others as a reflection of themselves). Such individuals have little empathy and little guilt about exploiting others; they are interested largely in being admired and feel a high degree of generalized entitlement. We are reminded of the old joke about the narcissistic man on a first date: “… but enough about me, what about you? What do you think of me?”

One of life’s frustrating ironies is that such individuals, while often unable to succeed in mutual relationships (as opposed to, for example, “trophy wives”), are often very successful in their careers. They seem to broadcast the message: “I’m a winner! You’re lucky to have me around!” And people (e.g., clients) tend to “buy” that message. The man you call George, exuding such messages, may elicit thoughts like, “This man is obviously very successful and very skilled at what he does,” even though someone like Bill, who does not radiate that kind of self-admiration, actually cares much more about his clients and works harder for them.

But, even if you can’t afford George’s clothes, car, etc, the quality of your appreciation for Denise and Bill, in itself, shows that in some important interpersonal respects you may well be a more psychologically developed human being. George’s version of narcissism is unhealthy, even though he seems so pleased with himself, just as unhealthy as someone who is chronically self-deprecating and self-doubting. (Deep down, many self-centered people who fervently seek admiration actually lack basic self-esteem.) Nevertheless, we can learn something from those who make their narcissism work for them in the professional sphere, namely, to look at what messages we are may be sending to clients. Are we appropriately valuing what we have to offer (even when imperfect) and behaving accordingly? Are we teaching our clients to respect our skills and our time? There is a good chance that they will believe the message they receive. If we can absorb that much from the Fletchers and Georges of the world, then they are giving us something, even if unintentionally.

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