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While I was looking for full time work as an attorney, I took a part time job as a legal assistant with a solo practitioner. The lawyer who I’ll call “Steven” was a nasty, rude man. He was always blaming me for things that he misplaced, and he loved to use the line “This is clearly over your head” whenever I’d ask a question. He was rude to opposing counsel and often injected sarcastic comments into his letters. Overall, he was not a pleasant man.

One of Steven’s greatest hits occurred when he thought I misfiled paper work. Whenever he received mail, he would write the name of the party we represented across the top right hand side of the paper, and he’d put the paper in my bin. We had a case entitled “Smith v. Jones”. We represented Jones. Across the right hand corner, Steven wrote “Smith”. As I was filing, I realized that Steven put the wrong name across the top. I filed it away in the correct file.

A few days later, I overhear Steven talking on his cell phone with his wife. While he was still on the phone with her, Steven calls me into his office. I go into his office and see Steven still on the phone with his wife. Steven, still holding his phone up to his face, screamed at me, “THIS IS FILED WRONG!! PAY ATTENTION!!” (And when I say “screamed”, I mean “screamed”.) Steven then says to his wife, “Oh, no. I’m not talking to you. I was educating my assistant.” And then he kept talking to his wife like nothing happened. I then walked out of his office.

I wanted to grab his phone, disconnect the call, and say, “You will NOT speak to me that way EVER again, especially when you are on the phone with someone.” I thought better of it, and because I needed the money, I stayed on. Fortunately, I was only there about a month and a half after that because one of the places where I interned in law school had a full-time job opening, called me in for an interview, and then hired me.

I’ve been very fortunate over the years to have hired very competent, professional lawyers.  I’ve learned to ask the question prior to engaging a lawyer’s services, “What is your philosophy of practicing law?”   When I asked an estate attorney we were considering hiring, he told me, “Lawyers who act like jerks in the court room are jerks in real life.  I’m not a jerk.”  And true to his word, he was the model of professionalism and represented our case well.  You, unfortunately, had a jerk for an employer.

{ 36 comments… add one }
  • Justme October 30, 2012, 5:31 am

    You should of put a stop to his abusive behaviour from the start. I once had a manager speak to me like that, I told him oneone is permitted to talk to me like that, my kids, my husband and my parents dont talk to me like that. And unless he was willing to pay me 100x more he better never speak like that to me again. I stayed on for 9 years and it never happened again. Some people like to be bullies, dont give them a chance.

  • Green123 October 30, 2012, 6:19 am

    Regardless of his profession, this man was (and probably still is) a bully. The OP did well to keep calm in the situation she describes and think she is to be admired for putting up with such vile behaiour for so long.

    Note to anyone working for a bully: record all incidences of bullying, however small they may seem. You may need them later when filing a complaint or at an industrial tribunal. Join a union and/or, in the UK, contact ACAS for help. They are superb. Do not suffer in silence.

  • Cherry October 30, 2012, 8:06 am

    I’ve had to work for some real jerks over the years. Unfortunately, especially when I was younger, a mix of lacking the confidence and needing the money held my tongue.

    I learned a valuable skill though – how to give someone enough rope to hang themselves. If a superior refuses to listen to me when I try to explain that they’ve made a mistake, or that there could be a better way around a problem, then I do everything exactly as they told me to. EXACTLY. And I save all emails with instructions and make notes of what they told me to do. That way, when things inevitably go wrong, I can say “I did everything as I was instructed to do it”. Therefore, blame was pointed in the correct direction, aka, not at me.

    (I will add a quick disclaimer that when I do mess up, I acknowledge it immediately and take full responsibility. This is only for when you’re trying to prevent things from going wrong but bosses won’t listen because they “know better”)

  • PM October 30, 2012, 8:17 am

    My first boss was an inconsiderate bully. He loved to send rude, snarky emails when he perceived problems with our work. (Which was often based on the fact that he hadn’t read the work carefully or misunderstood it.) My final straw was when I wrote an update report on an issue that I’d been dealing with for five months. The next morning, he wrote me a incredibly long email criticizing my laziness and incompetence in “barely skimming the surface” of the issue and demanded that I do a more detailed analysis immediately.

    One of the great moments of my life was sending him a file showing that I HAD done a thoroughly detailed analysis five months before. He just hadn’t bothered reading it.

    That was my final straw. I found a new job within two weeks, gave my notice and never looked back. Life is too short to work for crazy people.

  • Sossy October 30, 2012, 8:29 am

    Justme, I disagree. Just because you had a good experience standing up to a bully does not mean that the LW would have. S/he used the knowledge of her boss and the situation and reacted as s/he believed necessary. Bullies use the power they have over you to act in an abusive manner and the threat of losing one’s job is often enough to stop one from speaking up. I have a bully for a boss (luckily it’s not this bad) and I knew that if I ever said anything I would be without a source of income in heartbeat. Not everyone has the luxury to take that risk

  • counselorm October 30, 2012, 9:37 am

    I’ve been a lawyer for 14 years. I wish this were abnormal but, sadly, it is not. One could fill volumes with stories about obnoxious lawyers. I like the estate lawyer the admin mentioned. That is a great way for him to set himself a part. And, of course, in my years of practice I have met far more professional, courteous lawyers than rude ones.

  • Ellen October 30, 2012, 10:04 am

    I had an experience similar to Justme. I worked in the legal department of a large bank. After being berated and verbally abused by my supervising attorney, I chose a quiet moment later that day and asked to speak to her. I sat down in her office and told her that the way she spoke to me was inappropriate and uncalled for, and I would not be spoken to in that manner.

    I was young and uncomfortable with confrontation – I was shaking and tearing up when I said it, but I stayed polite. I heard later from the office manager that the attorney had complained to her about my impudence in “chiding” her. However, the office manager said with a smile, “I was told to discipline you for it – now I have.” There was no more said about it, and the attorney moderated her tone in the future.

  • Drjuliebug October 30, 2012, 10:33 am

    I certainly wouldn’t want to be one of his clients. The guy sounds like an utter incompetent.

  • Lerah99 October 30, 2012, 10:40 am

    The things we do to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.
    OP, I am so sorry you had to deal with this jerk as your boss.
    Some people just aren’t happy unless they make others miserable.

    Right out of high school I worked as a cashier and bookkeeper at a car wash. My general manager was a horrible human being.

    Many of our guys working the line were from Mexico, El Salvador, and Columbia. Most spoke very little or no English. My manager used to scream obsenities at them for being “too stupid to know English”. He also took advantage of their disadvantaged position to avoid paying them overtime(some guys were working 10 hour days 7 days a week), paying them what waiters make ($5.50/hr) because we had a tip jar, etc…

    The worst part was the tip jar. If I counted it or if my manager counted it, there would be a $100 difference. That’s right. He paid less than minimum wage, didn’t pay extra for overtime , and would then steal $100 out of their tips. When I confronted him about it, he replied “I work hard to keep this business running. Those guys are like rats. There are hundreds of them who’d love to work here. If one of them gets uppity about me having my share, he can go back where he came from. I’ll be happy to call immigration myself to help him along.” He then pulled out his wallet and threw $40 on the counter saying “If you want a cut you should just take it yourself. But if you are going to whine at me about it. Here you go. Switch from jeans to skirts and there could be more where that came from.”

    I quit and got a corporate job after that. I still feel bad for the guys working there.

  • JGM1764 October 30, 2012, 11:06 am

    That isn’t an option for a lot of people Green123. It isn’t for me at my current job (PT legal assistant like OP was) not that I need it really, I’m so lucky that my boss is awesome. But I have been in some situations back in my retail days where I and other employees took a lot of abuse from the managers and we had no recourse. If you complained to corporate you got fired, and since I live in an at-will employment state, they were within their rights to fire anyone for anything.

  • Nancy October 30, 2012, 11:09 am

    I think the OP did the only thing she could have done in this circumstance. Get out. Yes, you can write down all the instances, and bring them to HR or the union, or whatever, but really? The best thing you can do for yourself is just leave. And when they’re giving you your exit interview, you can burn that bridge to the ground and tell them EXACTLY why you’re leaving. Especially if you’ve got a new gig lined up. The union can only do so much, and going to the union can damage your reputation in the office. They’ll just find more passive aggressive ways of “showing” you. HR is there to protect the interests of your employer, and that means they are usually on the side of your manager. Not always, but usually.

  • Jenny October 30, 2012, 11:23 am

    Yeah – lawyers who fight over each and every little thing do not get good results for their clients. Remember, negotiation is key in any case, as most cases settle or plea out. It’s a lot easier to negotiate with the guy who wasn’t a jerk to you, versus the guy who fought giving you a continuance so you could go to your grandmother’s funeral.

  • Cat Whisperer October 30, 2012, 1:40 pm

    A jerk is a jerk is a jerk is a jerk. If someone shows themselves to be a jerk in any part of their life, in any relationship, then you’d best take note and assume they will be a jerk in other parts of their life and in other relationships.

    What amazes me is how willing many people are to tolerate jerkish behavior in people as long as it isn’t specifically directed at them. It’s like they believe that as long as they aren’t the target of jerkish behavior, it’s okay. But the one certain thing I’ve learned about jerks is that they will turn on anyone with their unacceptable behavior if the circumstances are right.

  • travestine October 30, 2012, 2:01 pm

    Ahhh yes, after many years as a paralegal, this is why I am now a bridal consultant. A fraction of the money, but the satisfaction of leaving the ‘jerk’ lawyers behind me is priceless!

    I had a couple like him in my career. One had his own phone trick. He would call a person into his office and when they arrived, he would ask a question, then pick up the phone. Your job was to answer his question before he finished dialing and the other person answered and he started talking, when he would dismiss you by raising his eyebrows. You would then have to stand outside his office until he was done. He did this to me precisely twice before I said, as he started dialing “I’ll come back when you’re not busy” and returned to my office, so he would have to call me to either ask his question or ask me to return to his office. I continued to do this until he stopped his behaviour. He had other tricks like this intended to demean his subordinates, which I refused to play along with. It got to the point where he wouldn’t speak to me directly – he would send other people to talk to me for him. He was a bully – I don’t tolerate bullies – boss or no boss. I moved on to another, better job after two years.

  • Cat October 30, 2012, 2:19 pm

    You are not alone. I had a principal say to me, “It’s a good thing you can’t hear what I think of you.” I nearly said, “It’s a good thing your mother can’t hear what you are thinking. I am sure she raised you to be a gentleman and would be sorry to learn that you are not.” Like you, I find that being rude back to rude people never improves their behavior or helps your employment situation so it’s best to set a professional example and hope they learn from it.

  • Jones October 30, 2012, 2:57 pm

    It’s not just lawyers. Jerks are in all levels, and much more noticeable when it’s a member of management.

  • babs October 30, 2012, 3:06 pm

    OP, I worked for a doctor like that. His favorite word was always “Obviously…” whenever a question was asked. He told me one time to remind him to put away a large box in his office. I did mention it to him, but it was right in his path – he almost had to trip over it. When he said “Didn’t I tell you to remind me about that box?” I said, “Well, I assumed you would think about it every time you had to go around it!.” He said “Never assume anything around here!” Some people just like to play mind games. I was newly married and very young and I supposed he liked making me nervous. He was a wine connoisseur and I was told he had a wine seller with an expensive collection. I came into work one morning and there were several empty bottles broken in his trash can. He was just a very unhappy person. I tried my best to do a really good job, and he actually said that I was the best admin assistant that he had had in a long time (I was one of a string of young women who came and went). But I quickly decided that life is too short to put up with mean people. I lasted a month before getting another job that I really liked.

  • Allie October 30, 2012, 3:54 pm

    I’m a lawyer and thankfully I can report that there are very few counsel like this. I practice in a medium-sized city and I can count on one hand the number of real jerks I encounter on the other side of files. I honestly believe most of them think it is good counsel work – that acting like that means they are good lawyers. They couldn’t be more wrong. People snicker behind their backs, they lose respect, they can’t keep employees and they risk alienating the other side, who then may be tempted to make things harder on their client. There is one lawyer I absolutely refuse to deal with. I have told my boss if he assigns me a file with that lawyer on the other side I’m afraid I will have no alternative but to quit and seek alternate employment. I wish I were kidding – he’s that rude!

  • Saucygirl October 30, 2012, 4:22 pm

    Cat, that reminds me of a teacher I had in college. On the last day of class he told me “if you hadn’t been such a b***, I might have been able to teach you something.” I looked at him and said ” I seriously doubt it”

  • White Lotus October 30, 2012, 4:34 pm

    You were an attorney. You took a job in your field far below your education and qualifications and that means you are almost certainly female. Doing that, IMO, is where you went wrong. Taking that job signaled to him that you did not value yourself as a lawyer and were therefore not to be valued by him in any way at all. Of course he is a competetive jerk, as some lawyers are, especially winning trial lawyers. The polite spine demands respect always, and respect starts with self-respect. Self-respect is what I see missing from this picture.
    And what were you thinking? Per DBIL, a lawyer, being a legal assistant or para is an entirely different job, for which you were not trained, and probably couldn’t do very well. Please learn the value of others who work in your field, honor their special skills and qualifications, and don’t think that because you are a rocket engineer you know how to fix a toaster. He suggests anyone similarly situated get a job in an entirely different field while interviewing and/or waiting for bar results.
    I suggest that is also courteous, particularly to those who have trained to be LAs or paras, and I hope you have learned from this experience.

  • Angel October 30, 2012, 4:51 pm

    I agree it’s a good idea to document instances of rudeness, unprofessionalism, etc., because some day you might need it. However, in my experience, the higher ups will usually listen to the employee who has been there the longest. If that’s your boss, then you are probably SOL.

    When I had my horrible boss experience, and I was asked about her in my exit interview from the company, I didn’t trash her, I just told the truth. I said that she tended to hold people back from being promoted or going to other departments, especially if she found them valuable in her own department. And that honestly I didn’t find that a very effective way of running your own department, and is a surefire way to get effective employees to just leave the company altogether. The interviewer thanked me, I left and thought no more about it for the next year or so.

    About a year later I received an email from the woman who was my boss’s “right hand man” so to speak, she would work a bunch of OT without getting paid, loyal as the day is long, and she gave me a heads up that she was filing an employment suit against our boss because our boss tried to prevent her from collecting disability (she had documented everything correctly, our boss was just being an ass and trying to make things difficult). So long story short, all this other stuff about my boss came out and she was dimissed shortly after. Although it took a while, justice was served. My point is, eventually people hang themselves with all that rope!

  • M October 30, 2012, 4:59 pm

    I once upon a time worked as a legal assistant for both nice attorneys and condescending jerks. I am now a supervising attorney at my organization and whenever I am interviewing new attorneys for jobs, I always ask my assistant for her opinion – anyone who is unpleasant or rude to her is not considered for a job. I have zero patience for the “I’m so much better than you because I’m a lawyer” attitude.

  • Silverlily October 30, 2012, 5:22 pm

    Cat, that was a terrible, not to mention unprofessional, thing for the principal to say to you. I’m sorry.

    Also, this is perhaps not the thread to say so, but thank you for your kind words a few threads ago, when I ventured to express how disastrous my experience with a psychiatrist had been. They meant a lot to me, because if a stranger can be so kind over the Internet to another stranger, then maybe there’s hope after all.

  • Jess October 30, 2012, 5:51 pm

    This is what I am terrified of when I finish law school. :S

  • Goodness October 30, 2012, 7:10 pm

    I had a lot of jobs, in a lot of fields, in my working life, and I can say from experience that it’s not just lawyers. My experience was that a great many people who are in solo practice or sole proprietorships are there because (a) their poor interpersonal skills kept them from succeeding in a team atmosphere, and/or (b) being the Big Boss(tm) allows them to get away with being a bully. Usually a sexist bully.

    Of course, this happens in the corporate and governmental settings, too, especially where department managers are allowed too much autonomy or are in competition. At my final corporate job there was a restructuring and I wound up under the management of a pleasant-seeming woman; co-workers, though, immediately warned me to watch myself because she liked to fire people. Sure enough, she set me up to fail and then fired me for failing. I will never forget the look on her face when instead of bursting into tears as she admitted she’d expected, I stood, clapped her on the shoulder, and said, “Well, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.” Priceless.

  • Cherry October 30, 2012, 7:12 pm

    @WhiteLotus, while I cannot do anything more than guess, I got the impression the OP took the job because she was at the time unable to get work as an attorney. Perhaps she thought that working in the same field would gain her experience prospective employers may find valuable?

  • The LW October 30, 2012, 8:01 pm

    OP here. To clarify, Steven was a solo practitioner, and I did work a bit in a lawyer capacity, billing at a higher rate, but I mostly did legal assistant work.

    White Lotus-

    Wow. There are lots of assumptions here. Before I was an attorney, I was a paralegal, so I did have experience in that field.

    What was I thinking? I was thinking that the bills needed to be paid. Like so many other lawyers recently, I found myself in a market where it seemed no one was hiring, and those that were hiring wanted lawyers who had 3, 5, 7+ years of experience. While applying for attorney positions, I *did* take other jobs not in my field–two jobs, to be exact. (Yes, I was working 3 different jobs to pay the bills.) I find your assumption that I had “no self-respect” because I took this job offensive. I took this job to help pay the bills while looking for work as an attorney, not because I have no “self-respect” and wanted to just work as a legal assistant for giggles.

    It’s easy to wax poetic about how things should be done until you are actually in that situation.

  • Kate October 30, 2012, 11:13 pm

    OP, I admire your confidence in standing up for yourself. During my first ‘horrible boss’ experience, I was quite young and really needed the job so I never stood up for myself, which I have always regretted. This boss used to make unreasonable demands (eg. write the minutes for a meeting I had not attended, and had no notes on) and would blow up when his demands were not met. I stuck it out for a year, but that included a number of toilet breaks spent in tears due to his behaviour.

  • Katie2 October 31, 2012, 9:03 am

    To White Lotus: for many people, it’s necessary to take a job that has a lower entry point than their formal qualification level. I temped my way through my PhD, doing filing, photocopying, basic admin. It doesn’t mean that I don’t ‘value’ my PhD/my degree/whatever: it meant that I needed the money! And also that I’m great with a photocopier 😉 I have plenty of self-respect, and I’m proud of working to pay my way.

  • Michellep October 31, 2012, 11:44 am

    OP, you handled it much better than I would have. Good on you for doing what you had to do.

    @WhiteLotus, your post is ridiculous and you are making assumptions you have no business making.

  • JenMo October 31, 2012, 11:55 am

    Glad the OP responded to WhiteLotus, because her post was quite unpleasant and filled with negative assumptions. To the OP, you handled yourself well, did what you had to do using your previous skills, and moved on when opportunity presented itself. No one could expect anything more of you.

  • Shea October 31, 2012, 11:56 am


    Wow, that’s an extremely interesting thing to say. People sometimes have to take the job that’s on offer, or risk not being able to pay the rent. I’m in precisely that situation right now. I have an advanced degree that qualifies me to work as a professional in a particular field, but jobs in that field are not easy to get right now. Currently, I’m working in the field, but in a job that does not require the degree I have (it’s analogous to lawyer vs. paralegal). I’m not devaluing myself and my qualifications, I’m doing it so I can eat, pay my rent and not get behind on my student loan payments

    You may have the luxury of being able to wait until just the right job comes along. Most of us don’t. So please refrain from making insulting assumptions about us.

  • 2browneyes4 October 31, 2012, 12:18 pm

    I’m an attorney and a similar thing happened to me when I clerked at a law firm before graduating law school. One partner had called the probate office of the courthouse to get information on an estate file. Then he lost the file. He asked me to call the probate office again. I called and got the information that would have normally applied to the client’s situation and presented to him a memo with that information. He later stormed out of his office and blasted me in front of half the employees, yelling that I did not know how to handle a situation, and how could I think that the information I obtained applied to the client. I told him that I would not have known that the client’s situation was special since he had lost the file, I then turned my back and walked away.

    After gathering my nerves for about 10 minutes I prepared myself to go to lunch. On the way out, I stopped by the desk of a friend and told her what happened. Then, unfortunately, I went on a tirade. I vented to her that, at the current time, my mother and I were not speaking because I would not take that kind of treatment from her, that I did not currently have a boyfriend because I would not take that kind of treatment from a man, and that I CERTAINLY was not going to take it off some short, clueless, idiotic coke-fiend like that partner!! (I had only thrown the coke part in since I saw him sniffing a couple times, I had no proof). I then went to lunch.

    When I returned from lunch, the partner called me in his office and apologized. He said that he had found the file, and after examining it, realized that the client’s situation was not special and that the general information I obtained applied anyway. I said nothing and walked out of his office. I stopped at the receptionist’s desk to tell her how shocked I was that he apologized (since he had always been pretty obnoxious) and she said “that’s because he heard every word you said!” I was shocked. Turns out that when I walked away after my tirade earlier, the door to the office behind me and he walked out of it!! He had been talking with another partner in that office the whole time I was giving my tirade and heard everything!!

    The odd part is, our relationship changed after that. He showed me a lot more respect and when I later needed temporary employment while studying for the bar, he was fully in support of bringing me back!! Funnier thing was that he really did have a coke habit that he cleaned up not long afterwards, and I was just exaggerating and blowing off steam when I said it!!

  • JeanLouiseFinch October 31, 2012, 9:54 pm

    Unfortunately, I have worked with many attorneys who are unpleasant, unprincipled jerks, which is one major problem with litigation firms. At one job, our entire practice group left to go to another firm. At the new firm, we were all required to watch a training film on sexual harassment. All of the female attorneys started laughing hysterically about halfway through since our old firm had been rife with the described behavior, along with all of the other abuse we took from the senior partners. OP, you did the only thing you could have done in your situation. Hopefully, your new job will be better.
    Browneyes – When I was at my last job, I worked for a senior partner who would yell and scream at various people, including me, but by that time I did not care if he fired me or not (he didn’t), so if he gave me grief, I just yelled right back. Oddly, we actually got along pretty well, although we always ended up bickering. Sometimes (but not always), the only thing to do is dish it right back (especially with male attorneys.) You actually did that guy a favor although you did not intend to do so at the time. Pointing out the fallout from his drug habit, albeit unknowingly, certainly cancelled out any impoliteness in your rant. (Although, I have to say that you were lucky since that kind of accusation, if false, can get you sued much less fired.)

  • Cat November 4, 2012, 5:34 pm

    Silverlily, you are most welcome. It’s a shame that kind words are at such a premium these days. Did you ever notice how quick some people are to come running to you to repeat a critical remark that someone made about you, but they never bother to repeat anything nice someone said?
    My last two principals were absolute disasters. My theory is that, if I am not married to them and I did not raise them, their behavior is not my problem. The last principal got mad at me, would not allow me to do my job for ten months, and then admitted to my immediate boss that I had been right and he wrong regarding the situation.
    My boss apologized for the way his boss had treated me, and was sorry that he had been unable to defend me. I said, “Never wrestle with a pig. You’ll get all muddy and you won’t win.” Then go home and have bacon.

  • Enna November 5, 2012, 1:32 pm

    Making a record of instances at work that are bad is a good idea just as a back up. Sometimes there cane be an chance to put the bully right but not always. Some of the comments here are shocking, feel so sorry for the posters!

    @ Lerah99 that boss was of yours was a sexist racist idiot. He better be careful, stealing money is illegal and if immigration did inverstigate his workers he might get into toruble for 1) not checking their visa status which could be expensiive and 2) for not paying them enought.

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