What's wrong with the legal profession

Legal bullying: "Little awareness of how people are handled"


A study by the International Bar Association found that bullying is a massive problem in the legal world of work. Coach Carmen Nice explains what those affected can do and why it is worth fighting back.

LTO: According to one Study by the International Bar Association the legal profession has a serious bullying problem: Almost half of the approximately 7,000 respondents said they had been bullied in the course of their working lives. Do lawyers particularly like bullying?

Carmen Schön: We should first define what bullying actually is. Basically: It is not a one-time action, but occurs repeatedly and regularly. In their professional life, employees are often bullied by superiors or higher-ranking officers, but there is also bullying among colleagues. It is typical, for example, when the work is constantly criticized, or when you are assigned too many, too few or pointless tasks. Overall, bullying is a recurring behavior that is not good for the person concerned.

It sounds as if bullying is primarily a subjective experience and can hardly be measured objectively.

The term bullying is almost overused and many people immediately feel bullied when something is exposed to their work. But criticism that is awkwardly raised is not yet systematic bullying.

On the other hand, it always depends on the viewing angle of the recipient and how sensitive he is. While one associate doesn't mind the criticism at all, the other can be devastated. However, you should look at sayings like "Don't be in a queue!" save and accept the feelings of those who feel bullied. Especially when he gets sick and is very unhappy at work, you should react.

One thesis of the IBA study was that the structure in the law firms - male-dominated management and strong hierarchies - encouraged bullying. Do you share this assessment?

We don't have enough women in management positions to say with certainty that it's just the men. I believe it depends on a person's personality rather than gender.

However, there is a structural aspect: In many law firms, each area does business for itself, and there is seldom an exchange between the partners. This is only partially transparent and can therefore encourage bullying behavior. Added to this is the high pressure everyone is under and the strong focus on the client's wishes. And: Most superiors have not learned how to lead employees and how to communicate with them properly.

What can associates do if they feel bullied?

The first step is to notice what is actually going on. Those affected should be aware of what is happening. A key question would be: What exactly is it that is harming me? In the second step, they should try to switch from the victim to the perpetrator role. There are people who involuntarily end up in the role of victim over and over again in the course of their lives. This usually has biographical reasons and is related to experiences in childhood. Anyone who has already experienced a situation in which they were a victim at a young age will also tend to remain passive as an adult when they are attacked. But it would be better to switch to the active role.

What is your advice to someone who wants to break free from the role of victim?

For example, he could speak to a colleague with whom he has a special relationship of trust. He won't be able to solve the problem either. But it can serve as a reflection surface and the exchange of experiences can help to see more clearly.

In the second step, you should speak to the "bully" - often this is a manager - directly about his behavior. However, it is important that you apply the so-called feedback rules. That means: Do not make accusations, but speak from the first-person perspective. Those affected should initially describe the manager's behavior neutrally and without evaluations, but then say that they are not doing well. At the end of the day, you should be asked to jointly consider whether and how something can be changed in the situation.

Sometimes the superiors react completely surprised when they are asked how negatively their behavior affects the employees. It is possible that they did not intend their harmful behavior in the first place. Then they are happy to get feedback and turn it off.

If that doesn't help, a person affected could also contact the HR department or speak to his mentor, who is in many law firms. But even there he won't always get support. In contrast to companies, the HR departments in law firms are not always trained in the area of ​​bullying. And a mentor could also take the position that you "have to go through this" if you want to make a career in the law firm. So you should think carefully beforehand who you are entrusting yourself to.

What if all else fails?

In the worst case - when it turns out that you can't do it alone - you should seek help. This can be a person of trust within the firm, but there are also external bodies that can help, such as clubs, associations or self-help groups and therapists.

Those affected naturally ask themselves whether it really makes sense to stay in the law firm in such a situation or whether they shouldn't just change jobs. But I think they should fight the fight and fight back. It can be a valuable lifetime experience.

When is it worth staying and when is it better to quit?

The crucial question is: Do my contacts - the line manager and the HR department - take my concerns seriously? Or is there a culture in which the unspoken rule is: "Enjoy the fact that you can work here! We can do a lot with you!"

Such an attitude in law firms is a big problem - and it happens a lot. Many, especially older partners, take the point of view that people work hard - and those who can't stand it are just too weak and should rather leave.

Incidentally, the sexist slogans against women, which are still the order of the day in many places, also follow a similar pattern, as the study mentioned above also recorded. Women often accept such sayings, but they can make them incredibly insecure. There is not always awareness of how people are handled.

Thank you for the interview, Ms. Schön.

The fully qualified lawyer and former head of the legal department, Carmen Schön, advises and coaches lawyers, executives and law firms on topics such as business development, leadership, appearance and impact.