- Learn how not to act in the workplace by reading these true stories from lawyers who experienced some troubling office situations first-hand.
It’s all well and good to read tips on how to behave in a legal workplace. But to hear from lawyers about the troubling activity that really happened in their office? Honestly, our jaws dropped a few times. People really didn’t do these things in a legal job, did they?
They did, and you can learn from the lawyers who experienced these situations first-hand. Read on to be informed and amazed.
“No matter how well you did in law school and no matter what your opinions are about how a firm should be run, what kinds of cases it should take, or what its legal philosophy should be, it’s never, ever your place as a new hire to make these kinds of decisions,” said Ben Michael, an attorney at Michael & Associates in Austin, Texas. “I don’t doubt that you worked hard and learned a lot to get here, but you have a lot more work to do and a lot more to learn before you’ll be in a position to have that kind of input.”
Michael said that advice came after a new hire overstepped. “She was an extremely well-qualified graduate—one of the best we’d ever interviewed,” he recalled. “In her first day on the job, she pulled me aside after our first all-staff meeting, during which she’d been introduced, and told me—not asked, told—that she wanted the meetings to be run in a more democratic style with employees collaborating to set the agenda.
“I told her in no uncertain terms that this wouldn’t be happening,” he stated. “I also told her that, while I appreciated that she’d come to me privately with this suggestion, her job right now was to learn how we operate and to work according to our existing practices and procedures. She’s kept her opinions about our practices to herself since then, but I can definitely tell she’s eager to start doing things her way soon.”
“Good attorneys will rely on the knowledge of senior attorneys throughout their career—and asking questions is expected,” said Derek Colvin, a lawyer at The Law Department in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “The biggest mistake I’ve seen from new attorneys hasn’t come from the form of the question. Instead, the harm has come from the method used to present the question.
“The situation that sticks out in my mind involved a question posed by an attorney in a nearby office on a forum/list-serv for a particular group of attorneys,” he noted. “I don’t remember the specific context of the post, but it was a question about a basic procedural issue. I observed the post, as did several attorneys in my office.
“Several questions came to mind,” added Colvin. “Why didn’t the posting attorney go to another attorney in his own office? Was the attorney hesitant to ask the question internally because of the office culture? Was this reflective of an issue with this attorney’s judgment or problem-solving? This occurred several years ago, and it still sticks out in my mind whenever I think of this attorney or this issue.
“Finding attorneys to rely upon, and later returning the favor as you gain experience, is an essential part of the legal profession,” he noted. “I’d caution any attorney to think carefully before posing questions to an online legal community. For most questions, as a new associate, you should research the issue, find an attorney in the firm, or phone a friend.”
“We had a legal intern who kept looking at his phone during a meeting without paying attention to what was being presented,” reported Amira Irfan, CEO of ASelfGuru.com. “We caught him texting several times before he shamelessly picked up his girlfriend’s call and said, ‘I can’t talk right now, but I can’t wait to call you back later.’
“This was highly inappropriate,” stated Irfan. “It left a bad impression, and we decided not to hire him. Looking at your phone during a meeting can be extremely distracting and disrespectful. We didn’t want to hire someone who was so unprofessional and disrespectful. It also made us question whether he’d be able to adequately represent our company.”
“One of the worst things that a new associate can say or do is to be rude to support staff,” explained Allan M. Siegel, a partner at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata Siegel in Washington, DC. “For example, when I was a young lawyer, I told a paralegal how something ‘had to be done.’ The problem was that I’d been doing it for all of one month, and she’d been doing it for 10 years. It was much more likely she knew how it had to be done more than I did, and it made the paralegal very uncomfortable because she knew I had to be told the right way. but she didn’t want to be disrespectful.
“I also recall a time a time when a young associate at our firm was mismanaging his assistant,” he added. “He was giving her busy work, which was occupying all her time, so she couldn’t get important work done. When she told him this, he took offense and rudely responded that his assignments were important and that she had to do what he assigned her.
“It was so aggravating to the assistant that she almost quit,” stated Siegel. “We had to sit down with the associate and teach him how to manage his work assignments and how to work together with his assistant as a team. As a new associate, you can learn more if you listen to support staff.”
“Our legal interns have been very punctual until one intern showed up 15 minutes late on her first day of work saying she was lost,” reported Kim Chan, founder and CEO of DocPro in Hong Kong. “Then she was consistently late for the week. This affected our other interns, who also started to come in late. Not only did I not consider her for a position, but I also didn’t give her a very good reference letter.”
Brand-new associates shouldn't make time-off requests right off the bat, advises Molly Rosenblum Allen, lead attorney at The Rosenblum Allen Law Firm in Las Vegas, Nevada. “I’m realistic, of course, and never expect employees to care as much or work as hard as me. But if your first question is about our vacation policy, a request for time off, or about work-life balance, it ruins my opinion right out of the gate.”
At Oberheiden P.C., a new attorney was told to confer with a senior attorney on a project. Fifty-plus pages and 30 or so hours into the assignment, the new attorney emailed the senior attorney for input on what had been drafted.
“The problem was that the number of hours devoted to the 50 pages by the new attorney was well beyond what the client expected to pay for the project,” stated Nick Oberheiden, the firm’s founder and lead attorney.
If the new attorney had consulted with the senior attorney before jumping the gun, added Oberheiden, the new attorney would have learned that the firm already had some of the foundational work on that assignment done and that all that was necessary was customization.
Shanelle Dupree said she has made this misstep, but thankfully, she recognized her mistake quickly and fixed it.
“I did this as a young lawyer and, as luck would have it, the person I was speaking to and the person I was speaking about knew one another and were friends,” explained the regional director of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. “It was one of my first cases, and I just couldn’t figure out how this attorney filed this petition. I thought to myself, ‘Is she crazy?’”
“I was renting office space from a seasoned attorney, so I asked this seasoned attorney if she’d ever worked with the attorney before,” she added. “The seasoned attorney hadn’t but set up a phone call with someone who had. On that call, I began explaining the situation and got way too loose-lipped. I asked, ‘Is she crazy or something?’
“The lawyer on the phone proceeded to tell me the lawyer who’d filed the petition was a personal friend and that her friend wasn’t crazy,” stated Dupree. “She suggested I reach out and have a chat with the attorney who filed the petition.
“I knew I needed to do damage control quickly,” she noted. “I called and left a message but got no response. I found out there was a CLE within the week, so I attended and waited after the event to talk to the attorney who filed the petition. Her attorney friend had already briefed her on the situation, and I apologized for speaking so flippantly and in such a noncollegial manner.
“Her initial disposition was very defensive, and she appeared irritated and upset,” stated Dupree. “But it disarmed her when I was honest and let her know this was one of my first cases and that I was really concerned that perhaps I just wasn’t seeing an issue. She loosened up and accepted my apology, and we ended up developing a respectable professional relationship. I learned that the legal community is very small and to make sure what I say is always said in the spirit of civility. You never know who’s connected, and acting otherwise is just not good for relationship building.”
“Some of our legal interns ask for reference letters constantly during their internship,” reported Chan. “Some even offer to draft the letter during working hours. This happened with one intern, and another intern followed her bad precedent. I know the two of them spent the final week drafting their reference letters instead of doing real work. Obviously, I didn’t use the forms they gave me and instead gave them very ordinary reference letters. And I didn’t consider them for future opportunities.”
“Your life outside of work is none of your employer’s business, and you shouldn’t be discussing it with your employer, especially without being asked,” said Aileen Brooks, cofounder of the Malecki Brooks Law Group in Elmhurst, Illinois. “Specifically, don’t call in informing your employer you’ll be late for work because you’re hungover and then proceed to ask if you can pick them up anything from Starbucks on your way in.”