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CLE examines the cost of bullying in the legal profession.

Abuse of power: Dealing with a bully lawyer

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CLE examines the cost of bullying in the legal profession

When Minneapolis attorney Bernice Fields organized a CLE on Bullying in the Legal Workplace, some legal secretaries told her they were afraid to ask for time off to attend.

At least one person in the audience cried at the description of being a bully’s target and what that can do to your health.

And the Minnesota Supreme Court last week confronted bullying in the profession when it suspended attorney Peter Nickitas for 30 days, followed by two years of supervised probation. There were several charges against Nickitas, but they included behavior that could readily be described as bullying. The petition said he made insulting remarks to opposing counsel during an arbitration, even screaming nose-to-nose with one attorney, the petition said. Nickitas could not be reached for comment.

The topic of bullying has taken center stage lately. The Anoka-Hennepin School District entered into a consent decree in 2012 governing discrimination and bullying after seven students there committed suicide. The Minnesota House of Representatives has passed the Safe and Supportive Schools bill requiring schools to have tougher antibullying policies. Hennepin and Ramsey County have “respectful workplace” policies that encompass bullying, and the American Bar Association has a blawg called “When the Abuser Goes to Work.”

It seemed to Fields that it was time to take a look at the problem. “I wanted to get some understanding,” she said. “I am not able to understand the demeaning of other people.”

The CLE, sponsored by the Hennepin County Bar Association, featured Gary Namie, a psychologist and creator of the Workplace Bullying Institute. He describes workplace bullying as repeated, health-harming mistreatment that includes verbal abuse, offensive conduct that is threatening, humiliating or intimidating, or interference that prevents work from being done.

That may sound familiar to many lawyers and administrative staff. Namie told Minnesota Lawyer that lawyers, as employers, are not worse bullies than in other workplaces, but they aren’t better either. And he finds it “ironic, hypocritical and myopic” that lawyers are no better at confronting and eliminating bullies than anyone else, given their knowledge of the law.

Depression plays role

But there is no doubt that law offices can be very stressful environments. “There does seem to be behavior [by lawyers] that can be traumatic, especially to a newer lawyer,” said Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. When she worked in career services, she encountered too many sobbing students to count, Bibelhausen said. Some students simply had never been in a “grown-up” job before, but some never knew when an attorney would throw a tantrum.

Those tantrum-throwing lawyers likely have significant psychological issues, Bibelhausen said. It’s well known that the incidence of depression among lawyers is high, and depression can manifest itself as hostility, she said. If the depression or other condition is causing the lawyer to make mistakes, he or she may look for a staffer to blame.

But there are many people who would never misuse power that way, regardless of their stress level, observed Elizabeth Wittenberg, a Minneapolis therapist who is also an attorney. “Some people choose law as a way to put their aggressiveness to use,” she said.

“This isn’t about people being crabby; it’s about the use of power and intimidation to make another person feel one-down,” she said. And she believes it usually shows up when people are in pairs, such as lawyer/secretary, partner/associate, etc. That’s why others don’t see it and why it can persist. Additionally, the bully’s tools of intimidation and attacks on self-esteem are not obvious. “The lawyer who bullies his or her secretary is charming to the executive committee,” she said.

Namie told the CLE audience about one company at which the head would not fire an acknowledged bully because he was a lunch buddy and a great conversationalist. “I can hear that said about a bright attorney,” Namie said. And if the bully is a rainmaker, he or she is likely to get a pass for bad behavior.

Tally the cost

Bullying is a stressor that leads to psychological or physical damage to the target, Namie asserts. Targets have to take the matter into their own hands and leave the workplace or convince the employer to act, which is nearly impossible, he said. The best argument is that the bully is costing the employer money because he or she is responsible for employee turnover. “Build a business case as to what that individual has cost the company. It’s not about you or you will be branded a whining, sniveling complainant. You have to build a case for the company,” Namie advised.

And that doesn’t always work, he warned. The trickiest problem is deciding to whom it is safe to bring your case, Namie said. It is possible that the company will simply say, “Thank you very much, you’re fired.”

But if the company doesn’t say that, and wants to address the problem, it must be acknowledged first, Wittenberg said. Frequently the bully externalizes the problem by blaming someone else, such as the incompetent associate. It is a “blame the victim” pattern that is found in many abusive situations.

Then the bullying behavior can be tackled, which sometimes takes perseverance and commitment to change, she said. “Very often bullying behavior is learned very early. It’s not picked up at age 25 when you become a lawyer. It’s learned in childhood,” Wittenberg explained.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, she continued. “It’s a complicated dynamic that takes a lot of sorting out,” she said.

In contrast, over time targets often come to feel so demoralized by the abuse that they begin to see themselves as incompetent failures, Wittenberg said. In order to break the cycle, they must recognize the bullying dynamic and the role played by each of the parties she said. Again, there’s no simple explanation for helping a target understand that he/she need not accept a bully’s behavior, she added.

And it may be difficult work for the target because the bullying may have affected his or her physical or mental health, Namie said. “You’re not going to do it with a stress management class,” he warned.

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