Burned and Burned Out

  • August 09, 2022

Dear Advy, 

I am a senior female associate in private litigation practice. I absolutely love private practice but encounter them typical issues of sexism from male colleagues and partners on occasion. What I find surprising and supremely unsettling, however, is the degree of sexism I regularly encounter (and with far greater frequency) from a large number of female partners in private practice. Some are incredible mentors and wonderful to work with and for, but others behave as if there is only so much room “at the top” for women and actively bully female associates or deny them opportunities (which can be extended to men). It’s incredibly disappointing for women who have gone through the same career path and likely struggled with the same issues to behave in such a backward fashion. What is the best way of dealing with workplace gender bullies? 

Burned and Burned Out

Dear Burned and Burned Out,

I’m not going to lie, these issues can be tricky.

The sad reality is that while women should be allies for other women, this is sometimes not the case – in any profession. I am not making excuses for this type of bullying, but sometimes men and women in senior roles feel that they needed to fight to get into those positions and wrongly believe that the women who follow in their footsteps should go through similar trials. 

You are correct, it should not be this way, but at the end of the day, this is your reality so here is what I would suggest. You must decide if this is a one off or ongoing issue. If it is an ongoing issue, I recommend documenting each incident in detail. You should ask yourself, “Is this an ongoing issue that will affect my career?” If you feel that this is stopping you from moving forward with your practice, then I suggest you speak with one of the positive female mentors in your circle. When you have the conversation with that mentor, make sure it is focused – not blaming the bullies or focusing on how you are treated but instead, asking for advice on how best to advance your career. Mention the specific opportunities you were unable to take part in and ask what they would suggest you do to be considered for similar opportunities in the future. It is more than likely that your mentor is aware of what is going on but, I can’t stress this enough, it is very important to take the high road and ensure the conversation does not turn into a bashing session on another lawyer (even if your mentor opens that door). Stay professional, and focus on your career path and not the bully.

You could also consider discussing the issue with a trusted senior partner in confidence. The firm has incentive to deal with these issues. They are losing out and undermining confidence. Firms are desirous of retaining talented young lawyers such as yourself.

I also suggest you research the firm’s policies regarding bullying. HR may have a policy in place to discreetly address this issue and then you do not need to reinvent the wheel.

When it comes to your well-being and dealing with these difficult people daily, the hardest pill to swallow is that you cannot change how other people act, only how you react to those people. If you are set on staying at your current law firm, I would suggest finding some healthy coping mechanisms. Speak to your local Lawyer Assistance Program provider on tactics for the best way to deal with the situation. Take some time each day to exercise, even if it is a quick lap or two around your building. Taking the time to breathe and break away from the office, even for a few moments, can make a world of difference in your mood and stress levels. Do all you can to take care of yourself; protect your own mental health. You may wish to see a professional counsellor to work on protecting your health and a plan to address the underlying problem. Also, it is important to understand that the bullying likely has nothing to do with you. It typically stems from internal issues the bully is grappling with.

If you don’t feel like any of these suggestions would help in your current situation and you have exhausted all of these avenues, then you may want to consider looking for a new job elsewhere. Bear in mind you could run into the same issues elsewhere. You may also wish to consult with a lawyer if it gets to this point.

If you do leave, be sure to stay in touch with those lawyers that have been great mentors to you. Build an army of mentors to help support you along the way and focus on the positive energy they are directing your way, rather than the negative aspects of your job.

I will end this by saying that you can take the high road and be a better mentor when it is your turn in that senior position. Be the example of a woman lawyer that is excelling at her practice while being an exceptional mentor to future female lawyers, so that the bullies become the exception and never the norm.

Be well and hang in there,

Related Topics: How to Deal with Bullies at Work: 9 Tips | TopResume

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