April 02, 2019

Cleaning Solutions for the Toxic Workplace

Rodney S. Dowell and Jeff Fortgang


Almost every one of us has, at one time, worked in an environment that was nearly unbearable. A toxic work environment can develop as a result of a boss, a co-worker, a client, or even an employee being supervised. You know the toxic environment is a problem when you cannot sleep at night, you cannot focus on work, you dread going into the office, or maybe you simply find it a welcome relief when you know that you will not have to interact with that person. It is time to effectively deal with this problem. How to begin? There is no single strategy that will work for all situations, but we have presented below three typical scenarios on which we will base a series of actions that can be taken to extract yourself from a toxic work environment.


The Toxic Trio

The intimidating boss. Twenty-seven-year-old Richard graduated from law school a year and a half ago and found a job working in the practice of Arthur, a seasoned practitioner whose firm has been a fixture in a local suburb for 35 years. Arthur takes all kinds of cases: personal injury, real estate, civil suits, divorces, estate planning, etc. These days, many of these cases (especially the less appealing ones) are given to Richard, as Arthur gradually scales back and spends winters in a warmer clime. Overwhelmed by cases of all sorts with which he has limited or no experience and repeatedly rebuffed by Arthur when requesting more guidance, Richard is gradually making his way, but he is losing sleep and having trouble concentrating and getting work done. Clients complain in frustration when their cases move along slowly, but the more worried and defeated Richard feels, the less productive he becomes. He finds Arthur intimidating and, at times, demeaning, and he fears that if he pushes Arthur too hard, he will find himself unemployed. Richard looks forward to Friday afternoon Happy Hour and dreads Mondays.

The no-support staff. Twenty-nine-year-old Cathy was something of a wunderkind in law school, wooed by a big-city law firm but determined that she would work as an associate for a small boutique firm started by four former big-firm partners. She is assigned to Jean, a 50-year-old partner with expertise in commercial real estate transactions, and they share a secretary, Harvey, who has worked as Jean’s legal secretary for 15 years. Jean is busy and abrupt when in the office, leaving a constant pile of work on Harvey’s and Cathy’s desks to complete. Harvey usually simply ignores Cathy’s requests for the secretarial support she needs to do her job effectively; he only does work given to him by Jean. This leaves Cathy with long hours doing both her own work and the work that should be done by an assistant. When Cathy requests help, Jean responds with a defense of Harvey and the recommendation that Cathy use the night staff and become more efficient. Occasionally, she suggests that Cathy may have made the wrong career choice. Although Cathy would like to find a position where she is given the necessary support, she needs the large income to pay off her substantial student loans.

The client from hell. Forty-six-year-old Dorothy started law school after raising her family, inspired by the lawyers she met while advocating for her special-needs child. She did well in a local law school and found work at 69-year-old Frank’s law firm, which specializes in family law and small business litigation. Dorothy handles much of the work, not only for her own cases but also for Frank’s. Her maturity and real-world experience help, but she is now dealing with Frank’s oldest and most profitable client, Ellen. Ellen is Dorothy’s most difficult client. She calls Dorothy at all hours, constantly questions Dorothy’s judgment, and now is requesting that Dorothy take a questionable ethical position. Frank refuses to intervene and address the issues with Ellen. He simply tells Dorothy to deal with it. Dorothy has no other job offers, and her husband, formerly a construction worker, is on disability with limited income. At times she gets energized to strike out on her own and at other times feels trapped with Frank and his ethically challenged client.


Disinfect the Mess—or Condemn the Property

Many factors create a toxic workplace environment and the sense of helplessness about our ability to constructively change it. Although every workplace scenario is unique, there are a number of common strategies that can be employed to change the environment to one that is positive and bearable. Below we propose a series of potentially fruitful approaches for bringing about such change—or leaving when the environment is beyond repair.

Know thyself. Regain a sense of who you are in relation to your profession—your sense of purpose. Why did you want to become a lawyer in the first place? Working in a toxic environment can make you forget.

Regain your self-esteem. Don’t let your workplace shatter your self-esteem. The increased stress triggered by these circumstances may manifest itself by affecting your mood or behavior (e.g., depression, anxiety, increased drinking, feeling distant from loved ones). Address these issues head-on:

Suspend addictive behavior. If the toxic environment has caused increased alcohol or substance use or other addictive behaviors, address that behavior without delay. Don’t be afraid to consult with a lawyer assistance program, a therapist/counselor, physician, or clergyperson to help you take an honest look at that behavior and deal with it.

Get exercise and eat properly. Stress and loss of self-esteem can lead us to let our nutrition and exercise slide—yet these are the times when both may be particularly helpful. Individuals often gain self-esteem and reduce stress by exercising and by successfully following a healthy diet.

Be confident. It is very important that you look inward to define yourself and do not absorb the view of you that is being projected by the toxic individual. This individual may not be seeing you as a person, but as a commodity, a competitor, or an obstacle. Recognize that you do not have to prove yourself by gaining the favor of the boss, secretary, or client before you can feel okay about yourself. There are many reasons why toxic individuals may be placing you in this negative role, including the possibility of significant deficits in their own work product, social ability, professionalism, etc., which have never been addressed and which may be much more significant than any professional limitation you may have. If depression or anxiety persists despite your own efforts to view the situation differently, consult with a behavioral health professional. (If you need help finding the right person, most lawyer assistance programs can provide direction; for a list of programs, visit the website of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.)

Be assertive. Seek support within your firm, or, if necessary, outside the firm, to address the issues causing the stress. Do not be afraid to communicate to other partners, human resources, or others with influence to get the help you need to deal with the unavailable boss, the lack of available support personnel, or the challenging client. The firm needs to know about the issues, and, remember, there are caring people in your professional sphere, often within your firm.

Find mentors. Start the process early by finding attorneys who are willing to offer guidance and support inside and outside of your firm. Outside of the firm, you can find mentors in bar associations, attorney networking groups, law school alumni organizations, and even online social groups such as SoloSez, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others. Mentors can also be found within your peer group either at the firm or, perhaps, among your cohort from law school. Get together with your mentor to combat the sense of isolation or uniqueness. These toxic situations are all too common but not commonly shared. You are not alone, but you must communicate to understand that the situation is not personal to you. However, be careful about where and how you say anything negative about your boss.

Start communicating. Once you’re feeling more solid and empowered, try to develop a coldly objective assessment of your boss and the culture of your work setting—rather than your personal reaction as someone in the middle of an uncomfortable situation. Is there the possibility here of some kind of constructive dialogue and negotiation? This would be something along the lines of, “We both know that our work relationship has not been going optimally. Here’s where I think it tends to go awry. What do you think about trying this alternative system (e.g., in which I get more guidance, or you only give me certain kinds of tasks, etc.)?”

If dialogue is not possible, is there any danger in trying an assertive expression of your wishes? For example, “I’m finding it impossible to accomplish X kind of task without either more guidance or more time, and I think anyone in my position would have the same difficulty. I’d really appreciate your spending maybe 20 minutes to review the basics of how you’d approach the task you assigned to me. After I’ve learned the ropes on this type of assignment, I should be able to carry the ball on my own.”

Strategically “manage up.” Learn to effectively “manage up,” which means taking a planned, strategic approach toward communication with one’s boss in order to get the desired results (in this case, more support/guidance/positivity/intervention). What’s going on with this boss? Is he or she overloaded/overwhelmed? Checked out? Needs to feel powerful and admired or to be convinced that you accept a subservient role and are not a threat? Honesty may be less valuable than giving the boss what he or she needs—this may clear the way for a generally more supportive relationship.

Head for the exit. Recognize when it is simply time to don your hazmat suit and transition to the next chapter of your work life. However, do not jump to the conclusion that you are not suited to be a lawyer; your acute discomfort may be specific to the setting. Many, many attorneys have found true happiness in a second or third legal position despite bad initial experiences. We all have various levels of maturity, confidence, experience, and other factors that impact how long it takes to become comfortable in our work lives. Some of us are more competitive, others more showy, more aggressive, more intuitive, more sensitive, more humanitarian, etc. The very qualities that you value most highly in yourself and others may not fit well in the firm where you find yourself now.

The successful transition begins with simply telling yourself, “I’m ready for a change; there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and I’m getting closer to it every day.” Then create a plan of action to land a new job. Planning requires you to define what you want the next job to be. You may need to start by finding a career coach/counselor (these titles are not tightly defined or controlled, and one coach or counselor may differ greatly from another). As a gross generalization, career counselors may be more inclined to emphasize vocational testing, quantitative assessment, and organized in-person sessions, whereas coaches may be more likely to do telephone sessions and sessions of varying length and to more actively cheer you on or push you to get beyond your reticence and take concrete actions. Some of these helpers are former mental health professionals and former attorneys, and some have particular experience with the world of lawyers. Your local lawyer assistance program may be able to help you select a career coach or counselor.

Many of the lawyers who now find their work lives rewarding were, at one time, feeling trapped in toxic and stressful work settings but found a way to induce change or to move on. If you are feeling the same way, today is the day to begin planning your own cleanup—or your escape.

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