Law clerk at small firm, partner lost his shit. Stay or go?
August 31, 2012 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Lawyer filter. I'm a full time law clerk and part-time law student and need serious, objective advice regarding my boss and whether I should continue at the firm.

I've been clerking at the firm for as long as I've been in law school (2-3 years). Small firm, but with some impressive clients. The experience I've had has been priceless-- e.g. having a large role in complex env. litigation, drafting briefs for federal and state court, etc. The managing partner (boss) and I have a great dynamic and I've truly considered him to be the ultimate mentor.

I realize that all attorneys and firm life have a reputation for being borderline crazy, insane, abusive, what have you. Aside from today's incident, I've truly loved the work and was very much looking forward to practicing with the firm. What happened today was the boss completely losing his shit-- however, I will preface that I made some serious errors regarding the motion that was to be filed today. PM me if more details would be helpful. By losing his shit I mean walking into my office, kicking some bankers boxes, yelling, more kicking. I've been able to take a lot, but this is by far the worst I've experienced and having undergone major deadlines and trial stressors before, I finally lost it and cried before leaving. He apologized and it was evident that he knew he had gone too far.

I'm not sure what my question is. First, whether I should continue at the firm in my law clerk capacity. Second, I always thought, up until today, that I was pretty cut out for this-- thoughts?

Any other feedback or advice would be much appreciated. Thanks.
posted by chloe.gelsomino to Work & Money (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yelling and kicking stuff is pretty shitty. Basically you have to decide if you can deal with that, and if it's outweighed by the good parts of working there.

Not all lawyers do that, to the extent you're wondering -- but it's certainly possible that some will at an alternative place you might end up at.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:03 PM on August 31, 2012

If they will have you back, there's no reason you have to decide today whether to leave or not. You can give it a few weeks to see. Let things settle a bit and decide. As for being cut out for it, it's experiences like these that teach us to not make mistakes. Pretty much everyone in every profession has fucked up royally one way or another.
posted by milarepa at 5:04 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

If this is your real name you should have this anonymized ASAP.
posted by bq at 5:05 PM on August 31, 2012 [15 favorites]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but to summarize: you screwed up and the boss blew up, all within a high stress environment.

If it were me, I wouldn't be asking if I should continue working at the firm; I'd be thanking the lord that I still had a great job and a possible future at an exciting firm.

That said, if a boss barking and banging around is going to damage your psychological well-being, then by all means explore other employment possibilities. Just realize that lawyers are usually lawyers first. Not a lot of them invest a whole lot of time into learning management best practices, especially in small firms.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 5:07 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yep, I screwed up, boss blew up-- with a string of deadlines over the last month, it's been more of a high stress environment than usual.

However, while I realize that one incident shouldn't make or break my decision to continue at the firm, it concerns me because it is the one incident that has rattled me to the point where I am considering to no longer pursue my career at the firm and to a somewhat general level, where I am second-guessing whether the legal field is the best for me.
posted by chloe.gelsomino at 5:13 PM on August 31, 2012

Then I recommend you make sure your mistakes are as infrequent as possible, you work on developing a tough skin, or you consider whether the type of law you're in right now is a good fit. I'm not a lawyer, but I have numerous lawyers in the family and quite a few attorney friends. Many, though not all, of them have definitely had to contend with some pretty nasty verbal abuse. Depending on the type of work you do, there's a lot of potential shit you have to deal with -- angry judges, nutso clients, overbearing partners, devious people with political agendas, etc.
posted by GnomeChompsky at 5:19 PM on August 31, 2012

I think you should put the decision whether to work at the firm or not on hold for at least a month. You're understandably upset and rattled right now, and you're much more likely to make a better decision if you get some distance from today's events.

The legal field does not have a monopoly on volatile, prone-to-kicking-and-screaming bosses. You'll find this in lots of jobs. On the other hand, I've never once seen a partner do anything like this, although I can imagine some who are capable of it.

Bottom line, it seems like you're really upset about this right now and want to talk about. That's totally cool. But just step back for a while and make up your mind later when you're not upset.
posted by MoonOrb at 5:23 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think anyone can tell you the answer to this, and I don't think it's an answer you should give yourself right now. Give it a few weeks, see how he handles himself, how things shake out. Sounds like everyone is under a lot of stress.

If you don't need this job, and aren't concerned about losing it, you could let the partner know, in no uncertain terms. that if he acts like that again, you will quit, regardless of what mistake you've made. I've done something similar with a partner I considered a mentor and a friend. But you have to have the right dynamic for that to work, and I can't tell if you do.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:37 PM on August 31, 2012

Once in three years strikes me as an unfortunate lapse, as opposed to a toxic environment. I do three strikes for bad office behavior: Once can happen to anybody, twice means I'm going to be a little cautious about this person, three times is a pattern and Up With This I Will Not Put.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:51 PM on August 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am not a lawyer, but I'm a paralegal who works at a small firm. I think you'll need to grow a thicker skin if you want to stay in the field. By no means should this kind of thing be common at your firm or any future firm you work at, and it isn't SOP forgood attorneys. But attorneys and clients lose their shit sometimes, and if you're the one who screwed up (maybe even if you're the only convenient scapegoat), you'll be on the receiving end of a meltdown or two. No workplace is perfect, and shit happens.

Take a week or so to really consider what it was about this that set you off: the fact that you messed up? The confrontation? The severity of your boss's reaction? The cumulative effect of the stress of deadlines? When I got reamed out by my boss for something, I know I got upset because it was for something that wasn't entirely in my control, and which I was new to handling (which my boss also knew). I got over it after my boss apologized, I had a good cry, and I remembered that my boss mostly only loses his shit when stuff is going wrong and he can't take it out on the real reason the situation got messed up. (It's really very freeing when you realize that someone else's emotional responses are Not About You.)

But you said "I've been able to take a lot." What have you already taken so far? Is this kind of behavior part of a pattern you've previously dismissed or shrugged off? Are there any other indications that this is a toxic work environment? If so, then consider quitting.
posted by yasaman at 5:59 PM on August 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

IAAL at a mid-size regional firm.

First, thank your lucky stars for this job. My advice to every single person I meet who says they are thinking about law school is "don't go to law school". The reason I give this advice is because there are only enough legal jobs for 50% of each year's graduating class to get one. I don't know your firm, but chances are that you will end up working there after graduation. This is a blessing.

That aside, blessings do not need to be clung to at all costs. However, in this case, I think you have a once-in-a-blue moon incident. (literally!) Your boss had an inexcusable outburst, but he immediately recognized it as such once he blew off the steam and apologized. I will MeMeil for more specifics because I am frankly curious about what happened with this motion.

I would not base your decision of whether or not to stay at this firm based on this single incident. Even if good legal jobs weren't rare, it seems like you have a good thing going here and the partner will likely be on his best behavior for some time. On the other hand, as you alluded in your follow-up post, it is possible that this could be the scales falling off your eyes.

Don't cry at work again.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:04 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Strange thing about crying. People generally don't want to do it, but it happens.
posted by Packed Lunch at 6:13 PM on August 31, 2012 [10 favorites]

Any time you experience abuse, you should document it: a simple record of date, time and what happened, and how you felt about it.

When, as in this case, you experience abuse that's not quite bad enough to make it immediately clear to you what you should do about it, then your record will give you something you can review to get answers to the following questions: Is what happened today part of a pattern? Is that a pattern I should continue to tolerate? Is it an escalating pattern?
posted by flabdablet at 7:54 PM on August 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

My experience leads me to be confused. You're a clerk, not an associate, not a partner. Isn't anyone overseeing your work at all?

Nthing the suggestion that you give yourself time to stop being upset before you make a decision.

Also - Seriously have a mod Anon this if this is your real name.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 8:15 PM on August 31, 2012

Welcome to the world of litigation. High pressure. This shit will happen to just about everyone--or worse, they don't display it and you're gone.

In this market? I'd hang on.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:43 PM on August 31, 2012

I have had to put up with similar nonsense at my present job and I am only a floral clerk. If this is the only incidence of such since you have been there I would consider it a one-off, have some ice cream or adult beverage of your choice, and shake it off.

What I am trying to say is that any highpressure job can have moments like this, but it sounds like normally the boss handles it quite professionally. Anybody can have a lapse of temporary nutzo. Learning how not to take it personally will serve you well in any career.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:15 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

IAAL. You're already mostly through law school, and this clerkship will be very, very valuable to you once you start looking for a job after you graduate - and not just for getting a job, but for being a good lawyer earlier than (most) other law students, who have either no prior legal experience or at most a 3 month summer associate position. People overestimate the ability of a law degree to make someone a good lawyer, and underestimate the value of experience.
Just take it as a learning experience, try not to make the same mistake again. Actually, I would recommend you schedule some time to talk with your boss sometime soon about how you could have avoided your mistake, and how you plan to improve going forward. Your boss doesn't lose his shit very often, and he apologized. He's not the only person at the firm. If you can't handle working there anymore, then leave, but it doesn't seem that you've reached that point yet.
posted by banishedimmortal at 10:03 PM on August 31, 2012

A good boss blows up once because of a reason you acknowledge and understand.

A bad boss blows up constantly, for reasons that no one understands.

In the law there are many, many examples of boss variety #2. It doesn't sound like yours is all that bad. Wait until you get the boss who likes you until she sees you win in court, and then hates you forever. Or the boss who makes fun of your clothes, no matter what you're wearing. Or the boss who doesn't like your diction.

Law is a bad job. Most of the time it is stressful. You have to deal with clients who love you when they need you and then curse you when it's time to pay some bills. It is usually not fun, and it is filled with abuse from the lowest assistant court clerk to the bar registration office and everyone in between. You can stay in and learn some coping mechanisms for aikido-ing that abuse out of the way. But if you really want to know what you'll look like after 25 years doing something, then look at the people who've been doing it for 25 years. If everyone else at that office is insane, then ask: is that cause, effect, or some weirdo coincidence?
posted by 1adam12 at 12:00 AM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've worked as a support person for criminal defense lawyers (small family-owned firm, tightly run by the boss's sister, very pleasant folks), divorce lawyers (also nice, one-man operation plus me), and corporate patent attorneys (very pleasant). I've also worked in situations where being accurate was necessary, such as the insurance industry. In one case, I did have a boss who was fond of picking up the phone and screaming at me on a weekly basis due to a report I sent out every Monday. Then I had to explain to him that X had not done their job again. It was just his personality and he was not yelling at me. Then we'd get on a conference call and he'd bitch at X's boss and the same thing would happen the following Monday. One day I opened up my binder bin and found a really nice duffel bag that he'd been given for heading up the team tackling this issue and he passed it on to me because he said I'd done all the hard work, so there's that.

Is there some other type of law that you might find more appealing? The fellows at the corporate patent office were very nice, as were all the office staff and it was a very pleasant (if boring) environment. I was offered a job, which I turned down to go into the marketing department, and on the first day there, was treated to grown men shouting obscenities at each other in the boardroom. I should have stayed in the patent office.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:11 AM on September 1, 2012

An incident like this can happen in any field, not just law. I'm an accountant and once had my boss nearly hit me upside the head with a two-hole punch. Granted, my situation is different in that it was someone else's mistake that triggered his anger, I was just the messenger.

That being said, I've found the best way to handle this, especially since it sounds like you have a good relationship with your boss, is to tell him how uncomfortable it made you. Yes, you screwed up and you're going to do XYZ to make sure it doesn't happen again, but the way he reacted was totally unacceptable. Make it clear that you want to be told when you've made a mistake (because how else are you going to learn), but the discussion needs to be much calmer than the last incident. Have this conversation at the calmest moment possible, but very soon.

Only you can decide if law is the right field for you, but I think if you can stand up to your boss on this point now, he'll be less likely to react in such a physical manner the next time. Good luck!
posted by youngergirl44 at 9:47 AM on September 1, 2012

I've been a lawyer in a big firm for 9 years. I've fucked up a few times. Nobody has ever screamed, thrown anything, or swore at me. I'm not lucky - I work in an environment where everyone has some humanity (even the douchebags). This is not "lawyers will be lawyers," this is abusive. If you want to stay - and I wouldn't - be very assertive and be clear that this will not happen again. When someone acts inappropriately, YOU get to be the boss.
posted by moammargaret at 3:17 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm very late to this. Anyone who is criticising you for crying is out of line, because if your boss is allowed to yell and kick things, you are allowed to cry in response to that. They are the same kind of outburst, the only difference is that one is "masculine" and "strong" and the other is "feminine" and "weak". If big manly men can't take it, they probably shouldn't dish it out.

I get that high-stress and legal environments bring a lot of verbal abuse with them. The one thing I think you should not have to put up with is your coworkers or superiors lashing out at you like this. You're supposed to be working together, not against each other. The crazy should not be coming from inside the house. Anybody who thinks this is a sentimental or unrealistic notion probably needs to toughen up a bit.

That said, there is no guarantee, ever, that by leaving you won't be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. There never is.
posted by tel3path at 6:15 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Drip Drip Drip   |   Walking-around recommendations for downtown... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.