YourABA: October 2012
YourABA October 2012 Masthead

Put a stop to bullying in your law firm

Bullying gets a lot of attention as a problem affecting children and their families. But it also can be an issue in the workplace — even at law firms.

Tom Grella, a managing partner at McGuire, Wood & Bissette P.A., in Asheville, N.C., says he has observed one of three possible reasons for law-office bullying. First, the bully might be suffering from a chemical imbalance or a substance-abuse problem that needs medical treatment. Second, the bully might have a “hierarchy” view of life, or the idea that lawyers are superior to those without law degrees. And third, the bully might struggle with time management and, under pressure, take out his or her frustrations on subordinates.

No matter the reason for bullying, the behavior cannot be tolerated, Grella says in Law Practice magazine. If you are in a position of authority to take action, there are two things to keep in mind.

“State with specificity
the ultimate consequence
of repeated conduct,
or failure to complete
a required remediation plan,” Grella says.

First, it is your responsibility to create an environment in which all members of the firm feel comfortable reporting conduct that doesn’t fit the firm’s culture, he says. Second, in most firms, even those that encourage openness, some people will feel uncomfortable reporting misconduct. Because of this, “when any allegation of bullying is made, it must be taken seriously,” Grella says. “With most types of unacceptable behavior, firm management can usually take action through individual confrontation.”

Law firms should have a protocol on how to deal with bullies as soon as the problem is evident, Grella says. He suggests taking these steps:

  • Bring the matter to the attention of the firm’s full governing body.
  • Once management considers the matter and confirms allegations, firm leaders should resolve to conduct an intervention meeting with the bully.
  • For the intervention, management must prepare talking points with specific actions.

The intervention will take some planning. Though all management should be present during the meeting, firm managers should choose an appropriate spokesperson to conduct the meeting, Grella says. “Because the person being confronted might have a hierarchy view of life, the spokesperson needs to be that person within the firm governance who has the greatest respect of the bully,” he says.

Prepare a statement explaining the reason and goal for the meeting, Grella says. A general statement of the offending conduct is all that is necessary. The bully will then understand that “his or her behavior must be changed to be acceptable,” he says.

After stating the charges, explain that management values the offending member and that the meeting’s purpose is to set up a plan of remediation. “You should also state with specificity the ultimate consequence of repeated conduct, or failure to complete a required remediation plan,” Grella says.

Conclude the meeting by laying out a specific action plan, he says. The plan could require treatment or coaching, and it should assign a trusted adviser from management to monitor rehabilitation efforts. “Accountability through periodic reporting back to management by the bully, and the advisor, should be clearly spelled out,” Grella says.

By implementing a specific intervention plan, he adds, firm management will likely avoid the negative consequences that bullying has on firm morale and culture and mitigate the risk of civil liability.

To read the full article, click here.

Law Practice magazine is a publication of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

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