Being yelled at is wrong, and it is unpleasant. However, it rarely constitutes harassment or constructive termination, as one New Jersey woman lawyer is claiming. In this crazy article, that raises some very good issues about how law firm’s should treat attorneys on maternity leave (so read it!), the references to senior lawyers yelling at junior lawyers provides some valuable food for thought. The problem for the woman claiming constructive termination based on being yelled at by another attorney, however, is that she is not a junior lawyer, and the entire thing seems very contrived.
We all should be able to agree that yelling is not a good management and leadership tactic, and I address that in my new book, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, which will be released this summer. In fact, yelling is a very bad behavior trait, and we all should try to eliminate it from our repertoires. I only can think of a few instances where yelling is appropriate, and they all involve life and death situations.
However, eliminating yelling by senior attorneys, especially in law firm practice, is hard to imagine. Although yelling is not good or advisable, the article points out this truism about our profession:
[G]etting yelled at from time to time is part of most jobs, and it’s downright central to working in a law firm. A lot of smart know-it-alls are working up against deadlines and that’s a powderkeg. The most reprehensible of lawyers actually pride themselves on how much they yell and bully people. And by “most reprehensible” I mean “most.”
I have heard stories about yelling and abusive treatment from many young women lawyers — and a few young male lawyers, as well. And, of course, I experienced it on my own many years ago. Although I do not condone it, and that must be clear by now, I know that it happens and I know that you will have to learn to be tough and get through it. It is a negative part of our profession, but it is only that — part of our profession. There is so much more on the positive side of the scale to make the occasional yelling episode pale by comparison. Do not make the mistake of blowing it out of proportion or you will find yourself throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Be tough. Demonstrate “true grit.” If you do not know what that means, read my books.
Recently, a young woman lawyer described to me what she considered to be abusive verbal treatment by a senior lawyer. I listened patiently, and then I pointed out to her that she was an associate in a law firm and not the Queen of Sheeba. There is a difference. The law firm’s objective is to train you and to prepare you for a successful career. It is not to make you feel warm and fuzzy and pamper you. Keep that in mind when you are deciding what is abusive and worth making a big deal of. Mull it over. Do not act prematurely. Let your maturity and your professional end goal guide you.
One day a judge will yell at you. I promise. It happens to most lawyers at one time or another. If you never have been yelled at by an authority figure, it will come as a big surprise, and you may not know how to handle it. If you have had that experience, however, you will be ready to respond as a professional.
Make the most of everything you experience as a junior lawyer and learn from it. Distinguishing good leadership behavior from bad leadership behavior is what will make you a good leader in the future.
And that should be your goal.