7 ways to deal with difficult colleagues

7 ways to deal with difficult colleagues

I remember my first day at work as a lawyer.

Soft of face and wet of ear, I was taken aback by the constant use of the term “fee-earner” to describe my new position. “But I thought I was a lawyer” my internal monologue protested: “a righter of wrongs and noble upholder of the law”.

Well, yes, that was still true but suddenly a new and unexpected ingredient was thrown into the legal mix: I was also to be an “earner of fees”.

Fair enough: a law firm is a business like any other. Law firms cannot exist on the power of goodwill alone.

However, the fact that I was a fee-earner meant a flurry of monthly spreadsheets would soon be produced on which progress towards my annual target would be measured, not unlike a Blue Peter appeal for grown-ups. Except that it was a bit less fun and involved the tacit threat of being shown the door if my failure to hit various targets was to rear its ugly head.

Which is probably why a small minority of, but by no means all, lawyers mutate from being keen-young-whippersnappers to over-caffeinated ne’er-do-wells in the time it takes you to say “why did you write all my time off”?

So how do you deal with Darwinian environment of a modern law firm?

Grow a beard and set sail for the Galapagos Islands?

No. Probably best not.

That said, you can check out some of my handy tips below on how to deal with difficult colleagues:

  • Accept that competition is part and parcel of a law firm. Don’t get bitter or take it personally when you are up against tricky colleagues. Low-level passive-aggressive behaviour can typically be brushed off – it is often more trouble than it is worth dealing with it – but recognise that there is a time when you need to be assertive, such as when all of your time has (unjustifiably) been written off on a file. Asking for an explanation firmly but politely (and mentioning that you are disappointed) often does the trick.
  • Allow your colleague to have some “rope with which to hang themselves”. If they come across to you as nasty, spiteful and unprofessional, they are likely to come across as nasty, spiteful and unprofessional to your boss too, unless they play an exceptionally good game (in which case you might want to send them a card to congratulate them on their unfeasibly impressive office politics skills). Senior staff should recognise that the fee-earner is behaving inappropriately. Help them do so by giving them a clear line of sight.
  • Try to step back from your emotions – this should be easy for most lawyers – and try to see their side. Do they have a point? Are they just expressing it poorly?
  • Avoid stooping to your colleague’s level. Oscar Wilde may have said “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” but he wasn’t trying to get 15 bundles of documents out by 5 o’clock. Even though arguing in the gutter might be emotionally cathartic – for five minutes at least – having your colleague see you froth at the mouth probably isn’t a great look. Or good career move. And those bundles aren’t going to paginate themselves.
  • Make your feelings relatively clear – you might not want to show all of your cards – but try not to be a victim.
  • Feel smug when your alpha colleagues think you don’t notice they’re being Machiavellian. If you notice they’re being Machiavellian, this usually means that they aren’t really succeeding in being, well, Machiavellian. You win, they lose. Who said that this isn’t fun?
  • Have a chat with a close colleague who you trust. What do they think? How would they (legally) deal with Mr Devious or Ms Angry?

Sadly, however, there are times when obnoxious behaviour crosses the line, into the realms of bullying, harassment or discrimination. This is when a firm’s HR department might need to be consulted. If you think that this is happening to you, there are fortunately various resources available to you such as the Solicitors’ Support Network (SSN). The SSN also operates a confidential helpline (on 0800 328 4203).

Whatever happens, do not think that an issue will simply disappear as if by magic. It won’t – unless you move to Australia and take up another job (hint: this can be expensive and time-consuming).

It is clear that part of being a lawyer is dealing with office politics. The better you become at dealing with these, the more you can concentrate on what really matters: your files and your clients. And, most importantly, your sanity.

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About the author:
Paul Caddy is a highly experienced lawyer and legal writer specialising in commercial law and information law. He qualified in 2000 at Osborne Clarke and subsequently moved to Laytons where he undertook a broad spectrum of work in commercial law. His experience also includes large projects work where he helped to set up the North West Fund, the largest venture capital fund of its kind in the UK and one of the largest public sector funds of its kind in Europe.