We lawyers like to use definitions in our writing. It makes the substance of the document easier to read because it allows the drafter to avoid repeating things or using terms in an inconsistent manner. I am going to try that here, knowing that I may offend someone or other.
In this article, ‘marriage’ means a romantic relationship (whether or not having a sexual component) between any two or more people of any genders or without a gender, whether or not sanctified by a religious or civil ceremony of any type, and ‘spouse’ means any of the human beings who are involved in such a relationship. I hope that I have included everyone, but I will not be surprised if I have not. Frankly, I am having trouble keeping up.
With that out of the way, I want to talk about a particular type of marriage, being an abusive marriage. For this purpose, I need another definition. Let’s define an ‘abuser’ as someone who has psychological issues which gives them a need to dominate their spouse, which issues may include one or more of narcissism, anger, violent tendencies or just being a mean and controlling son (or daughter) of a bitch.
In an abusive marriage, the abuser tries to micro-manage the couple’s life, and in the process gnaws away at the self-confidence of their spouse. At the same time, the abuser feigns an interest in promoting the best interests of the spouse. The spouse tries to please the abuser, thinking that if they can only meet the exacting standards of the abuser, peace will be restored, and the romance will be rekindled. Down the rabbit hole they go, until the spouse either has a mental break-down or has a revelation and gets the hell out. We have all heard of, seen or experienced these stories.
Lawyers know that a change to a definition can make a large difference to the meaning of a document. Let’s revise the definitions a bit. We can change ‘marriage’ to ‘business relationship’, ‘spouse’ to ‘lawyer’ and ‘abuser’ to ‘supervising lawyer’, mutatis, mutandis as we lawyers like to say (meaning ‘with all of the necessary changes’).
As we all know, not every marriage is abusive, nor is every business relationship. Many supervising lawyers are wonderful, giving people who teach, train, guide, and mentor the junior lawyers who report to them. But not all of them. I am writing about those other ones. The abusers. And I am not talking about sexual abuse or violence. I am addressing those people who, due to their own psychological deficiencies or unadulterated greed, try to make their subordinates comply with their arbitrary and compulsively obsessive standards and otherwise make the work lives of those who report to them a living hell.
If you think about it, we all know that there are people who abuse their spouses. And we know that lawyers are people. So, some of them must abuse their spouses. It really is not a very far leap to acknowledge that those very same people might be expected to bring their psychological issues to the workplace and abuse their subordinates. And, we have all observed lawyers overwork, yell at, intimidate and belittle their associates. Hell, I actually had a partner who openly referred to her associate as a ‘peon’. The same partner gave an articling student an absolutely impossible task and then tried to deflect the blame to the student when the file blew up.
And then there are the lawyers who dump a transaction on their associate or clerk and take off for parts unknown, leaving the inexperienced subordinate to try to cope with the stress.
We all have our stories about lawyers who do not treat their associates and staff with dignity and respect or who download their stress and responsibility to inexperienced underlings.
Some partners are well-known for their inability to keep their assistants, clerks, or associates. I knew a firm that had great difficulty hiring a lawyer in a certain department because all of the recruiters knew the reputation of the partner in charge of the practice area. And still, despite the constant turn-over, other partners made excuses for her, over and over and over again. One partner said, somewhat proudly, ‘Yes, she’s a bitch, but she is our bitch.’
So here is the thing. The horror of domestic abuse takes place in private. There are no witnesses, or at least few witnesses with any power to intervene. In law firms of any size, there are always witnesses when the relationship between a supervising lawyer and a subordinate is abusive. There are co-workers, partners, and managers. And yet these relationships continue. Some partners chew through associates and staff. Everyone knows. Often no one does anything about it.
When the abuser has a large book of business and lots of billings, excuses are made and situations are allowed to fester, often for years.
And the bullies don’t stop with the associates and the staff. Partners with small books of business and average billings become targets of partners with large books of business and great billings.
It is not surprising that some people have psychological problems and that such problems may be magnified in the competitive environment of law firms and the high-stakes nature of some types of legal work. The bullies in high school have to go somewhere. Some of them are going to end up in law firms. Or, to say it more simply: Some people suck. Lawyers are people. Some lawyers suck.
The question is why the vast majority of lawyers, who are decent people, allow the abusers to get away with it.
For some reason which I will leave to the psychologists to explain, I have observed that the bullies tend to be very competitive and hard-working folks who often have high billings and large client bases. Since law firms are good at measuring dollars brought in and bad at measuring dollars wasted due to bad morale and staff and lawyer turn-over, these lawyers often have an influence which is disproportionate to their actual contributions. To put it in accounting terms, it is like everyone focuses on the revenue and ignores the expenses. As anyone who has run a successful business knows, focussing exclusively on the top line and ignoring the bottom line is a recipe for disaster.
But lawyers often do exactly that. The result is that sometimes bullies are able to reach positions of authority which allow them to influence the career paths of others. Everyone knows it. Speaking up is a bad idea. Those who find it intolerable vote with their feet and move on. And the cycle continues. Seemingly forever.