How to deal with a difficult boss at your law firm

Ever dealt with a difficult boss? Here are some helpful tips that can help you set important boundaries, protect your peace of mind, and stay focused on professional growth.

If you’ve ever worked at a law firm with more than two lawyers, chances are you’ve encountered a difficult boss. I’ll never forget my worst boss. This was his modus operandi:

Every evening, just as I was starting to think about leaving the office (usually around 6:30 or 7), he’d show up at my door and say, “Hey, I’m about to get on a phone call, but it’s really important that you meet with me before you leave for the night.” Then he’d close his office door for an hour or two, during which he may — or may not — have been on the phone. When he finally opened the door and I inevitably showed up with a notepad and pen, he’d look at me angrily and say, “You’re not leaving already, are you?” He was a master at doling out the unearned guilt trip.

You may have experience with a boss like the one I’ve described above (or any of the other predictable difficult-attorney types). So, how do you deal with them? While it’s tempting to give you tips aimed at saving your sanity–such as meditation, exercise, and aromatherapy–this article focuses on the hard (but realistic) measures you can take to make your workplace and life more tolerable despite your difficult bosses.

Know your environment

One of the difficulties in giving blanket advice on dealing with difficult bosses in the legal environment is that legal workplaces are as diverse as can be. If you work in a large law firm with offices in 45 cities worldwide, the protections you invoke will be entirely different from those used by a person working in a small-town, two-lawyer shop.

With that said, the best first piece of advice we can provide is for you to honestly assess your work environment. Regardless of the size of your workplace, ask yourself the following questions:

If the answer is “yes,” to any of the above questions, by all means, start there. While you may not love the answers you get from those resources, at least you have a safe place to explore your concerns and options.

Know yourself and communicate accordingly

Far be it from me to victim-blame but a big part of assessing any workplace dispute is honestly assessing your role in it. Difficult bosses are what they are, but sometimes we unwittingly (or purposefully) do things to exacerbate the problem.

When I was dealing with the difficult boss described above, in fact, I know I sometimes did things to make him angry. For example, my firm had just launched a new program that allowed associate attorneys to work from home from time to time. I knew my boss hated that program, yet I invoked it as often as possible to get away from him. That only served to inflame his distrust in me. While I had every right to work from home, I could have been more communicative with him about the situation rather than just sticking my head in the sand and avoiding him altogether.

It may be hard to think about having an honest conversation with your difficult boss. Nonetheless, if you analyze your own role in the difficult relationship and communicate directly with the person, you might be able to make the situation more tolerable for everyone.

Thrive despite your difficult boss

If you’re working in an environment where you have supervisors aside from your difficult boss who may notice your extraordinary efforts, by all means, make yourself a superstar. While it may be hard to motivate yourself to greatness in a toxic environment, the payoff can be worth it.

In truth, you’re not the only one who sees that your difficult boss is difficult. That said, if more reasonable managers see that you are thriving despite the challenges of your difficult boss, you may find your way to a better working environment. In other words, if the good bosses see that you managed to keep your head up in the worst of circumstances, they may seek to recruit you and your positive attitude to their team.

Walk away with dignity

Not every problem is solvable. Ultimately, your difficult boss may be too much for you. Or perhaps your law firm isn’t willing to provide the support you need to make the situation better. Either way, there comes a time when you must decide to simply walk away from a bad situation.

Once you make this decision, just be aware that the legal community (no matter where you practice) is small. If you burn one bridge, you may unwittingly burn several. Thus, it is important that if you decide to leave a job, you do so with grace and professionalism.

While leaving in a fit of rage may feel good in the moment, that incident can follow you for the rest of your career. Take the higher road. Give plenty of notice. Say meaningful goodbyes to the co-workers who supported you along the way.

Once you’ve done all that, you can go build a top-notch career in an environment that suits you.

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