Imagine starting your work day every day going somewhere and never knowing what you will encounter upon walking in the door. Some days you may be able to go to your desk and do your job and nothing out of the ordinary happens. Most days you have to walk by someone who, depending on her mood, may or may not say hello. If it’s a bad mood, then the silence is louder than a hello would have been. All days you know that your steps are being monitored, that if one of the people who take pleasure in causing others harm can see you, they are reporting your actions to another person who likes to cause others harm, the two of them deriving pleasure from their perceived power in knowing your whereabouts. Imagine too that if you have to interact with someone who is supposed to help you in your job, most likely any requests you make will be met with hostility for sure, and probably require more than one attempt on your part to get the needed request accomplished. Add to this mix that the boss of the place does not stop any of this sort of activity, but would prefer to pretend it does not happen. If something must be done and you finally must ask the boss for intervention, he will sympathize with your plight and do nothing further than ensure it gets done. In the ensuring, he will sympathize with that person’s hating you for no reason, but just plead for a bit of assistance. Top all of this off with the fact that the type of work you do requires you take personal responsibility for all the actions of all the staff because you took an oath that requires such personal responsibility. This means that ultimately, the buck stops with you. If something is not done or not done correctly, you are responsible, even if you were not aware of the misapprehension.
This was life where I worked for several years, off and on. This was the place that forced me to reevaluate who I am, forced me to grow a spine of steel, made me more cynical, and threw a wrench into my faith in humanity. If tough situations make you grow, then I’m the beanstalk. And that’s okay, at least on some levels. But it is a fucking nightmare on others. It would be amazing indeed, if I could actually put that place behind me and never have to have anything, and I mean anything ever to do with it again.
I worked at this law firm immediately upon graduating law school and passing the bar. Within six months of starting at the place, I was utterly miserable. It was a horrible place to work, toxic and cruel. Kindness was not a part of the lexicon there. After a year my doctor told me that if I did not quit, the likelihood of a heart attack and even death was a possibility from the stress of it all. I quit, claiming hostile work environment, and the state paid me unemployment. The owner of the firm where I had worked seemed geniunely sorry for this state of affairs and gave me quite a lot of contract work. I also started practicing on my own and did quite well until the laws changed and my practice evaporated into thin air.
I spent a year looking for work. I took a job for a few months as in house counsel at an internet marketing company, but worked myself out of the job. A few months after that I took a job as a paralegal at a collections firm. During this time other monstrous things happened in my life that demanded my focus. Perhaps it was best I wasn’t working for a firm. I don’t know. Throughout this time I stayed in touch with the owner of the firm where I had started. I’ll call him Fred. I liked Fred and respected his knowledge as an attorney. All the lawyers I worked with there had become close friends. We had all been in a place that was almost like a war zone, comforting one another and celebrating each time one or another found a job elsewhere.
Then a year ago the last of the lawyers from our original group of 7 found another job. The practice was bustling and Fred was desperate to fill the spot with an experienced attorney. He had too much work and could not afford the time to train another lawyer. My friend suggested he hire me back. Our area of law is highly specialized and there just aren’t lawyers out there looking who know it. I figured after the year I had been through, the people in his office would not faze me. Plus he had two offices and I would be in the one away from the people who were especially unpleasant. I took the job with my eyes wide open and thought I could make it in spite of what it had been like previously.
I was so wrong. In the last year I came to realize that the bitter and nasty office manager and all the miserable staff members were that way because Fred allows and in many ways encourages their actions. He knows how his office manager handles things. When situations come up, he disappears and lets the shit hit the fan. When one employee comes to him to complain about the other, he doesn’t try to find out what happened. He appeases the complainer by agreeing with them about how bad the other person is. Then when the other person comes to him to discuss the same situation, he turns and criticizes the original person who complained. He is always playing both sides of the fence. I believe he does this because he is so conflict averse, he can’t fathom telling one person or another that they need to change their behavior, to put up or shut up. Instead he lets them continue to act the way that they do and even goes along with it.
As an example of the kind of Lord of the Flies nastiness I’m talking about, the office manager routinely sends disparaging emails about other employees, “accidentally” sending them to the wrong person or the whole office. She once “accidentally” sent an attorney in the office an email meant for one of the staff members who is often as nasty and passive aggressive as she is. The email said that yet another staff member was fat, smelly, and smoked too much. Another time, she sent an email saying that having me as an attorney working for them was “scraping the bottom of the barrel.” Of course, the way things are in that office, another employee printed it up and put a copy in my box. Another time several of the staff members did not like the post-maternity clothes one of the female attorneys wore after she had a baby. They thought they made her look fat. In “protest,” the group of them wore jeans to work for a week. Since the office manager was part of the group “protesting” it was not likely any of the staff members would have been sanctioned for failure to adhere to the dress code. Such a pleasant place to work.
Clients too are constantly being short-changed, ignored, patronized, and generally get nothing for the money they paid. Over and over and over I would get a call from a client who had tried for weeks to reach someone who had not returned their call. They finally changed their tack and asked for someone else in an effort to get an answer to their question. As an attorney, I was responsible for correcting files paralegals had put together. The paralegals who did not like me would not make the changes, leaving the client to stammer and stutter to the trustee why something in their petition wasn’t right. The disparaging names for clients around the office were bitter and laced with hate. It was a poisonous place to work.
Finally in November when another employee who had no business monitoring me at all called me a liar over a trivial situation, I threw up my hands and said I quit. The culture of disrepect in the place was more than I could bear. Fred asked me to stay until the end of the year, which I did, but only because I genuinely cared for the clients I worked for. I wanted things to work out for them. I wanted their cases to proceed smoothly.
Ours is a small legal world. Everyone knows everyone else or someone who knows that someone else. I had a case where my client ended up filing for bankruptcy because of the actions of another attorney I knew from law school. Not only did she screw up the case on which she provided representation, she also advised him to pay her with a credit card before filing. This was against the law. Legal action ensued against my client. The response stated he lacked intent to defraud, and that the attorney who took the payment was responsible; she knew better, or should have. The attorney who had taken the payment went berserk. She claimed the client was a liar. She claimed I lacked “professional courtesy” for standing up for my client instead of her. She danced around every which way and even brought the partners of her firm in to bat for her.
During the middle of all this, I left my firm. The new attorney handling the case was as upset by the facts as I was. The client was in a particularly precarious position because the trustee in his case could have taken a malpractice award from him to pay other creditors, leaving him still owing the credit card company. He was doubly screwed.
Several weeks ago, Fred called me to ask about facts I had discussed with him about eight times previously. However he’s not exactly a dedicated listener, so I wasn’t surprised I was reiterating this information to him yet again. He had a settlement conference scheduled with the other firm and needed the details again to understand our client’s position. I genuinely cared for the client and wanted to do right by him since so many attorneys had failed him in their “assistance” even though I had no desire to do anything for free for Fred ever again. Another charming facet of Fred’s character is his absolute unwillingness to part with his money. When I left the firm, I had grossed for the year two-thirds of what I had netted when I worked there previously. He claimed he paid me less because business was slow, but I knew better. I knew the filing numbers and client numbers. The fact is, he’s cheap and lots of attorneys leave because of money as well as the toxic work environment. Anyway, I answered his questions and discussed the case because I really care about this client. He’s a nice guy who got totally screwed as far as I was concerned. It was up to us to help make things better.
Well, last week I discovered that Fred, at the settlement conference, sold me up the river to avoid conflict and to settle the case. He advised the other lawyer’s firm partners to pay to settle the case because it would cost too much to fight. The lawyer I knew from law school complained about her actions being listed in the response to the complaint. The firm owner told them he was sorry how things had gone, but that I hadn’t “known what I was doing” and that I “didn’t understand the law.” However, I didn’t work there anymore and it would just be best to settle and get out of it, the implication being that I didn’t work there anymore because of how I had handled this case.
What a fucking coward. Rather than stand up to this attorney who should have her license suspended for putting the client in bankruptcy in the first place and to appease her wounded pride, he puts me on the chopping block and blames me, implying that I had somehow involved the other lawyer, instead of standing up for my decision to answer the complaint truthfully and openly fighting for the client. He got the result he wanted, which was settlement, but he did so by placing my character, integrity, and morality in question to do so. In his mind, the end justifies any means. Again, what a coward.
I have long said the human characteristic that I most despise is arrogance. I have to amend that and add cowardice. I have always thought of cowardice in terms of things like someone not going bungee jumping or something, but that’s not it. That’s just good old-fashioned healthy fear. Cowardice is not standing up and doing the right thing in spite of what others will think. It’s standing back and letting things happen to save your own ass. It’s being so afraid of what might happen you don’t make something right. It’s making someone else who can’t defend themselves look bad to protect yourself. All of it. I know there is more. I know there are exceptions. But in general, it’s just fucking what it is: cowardice. And Fred is a coward.
I was so upset when I heard about this. I sobbed. I know I have integrity. I know I handled that case properly. I know the other lawyer did not do a good job. And it seemed like it all just didn’t matter. Since this happened, I have spoken to a few trusted attorney friends. They told me not to worry, that my integrity and honesty are intact even though a dishonest and cowardly person used me to protect his own ass from having to deal with conflict. It is the perspective of my friends that in the end a person who is moral will prevail. I hope this is true. The whole thing still bugs the shit out of me. I know the next time I run into Fred I will let him know that I am aware of this situation. I will watch him try to talk his way out of it as I have a thousand other times with other people. But I know better.