Firmly Betrayed

  • October 06, 2021

Dear Advy,

I recently took a position with a new firm in a new practice area. Before the transition, I had to rehome clients that I could not continue to serve at the new firm. In that process, I encountered more than one lawyer locally, and even within my old firm, maligning my reputation and discrediting my work to my prior clients. I felt stunned and betrayed. Until then, I believed I had a solid reputation. I've heard from other lawyers that they experienced the same thing when making a career move, so I suppose I'm in good company. However, it still knocked me down mentally and professionally. How do I overcome feeling betrayed? 

Firmly Betrayed

Dear Firmly Betrayed:

Shakespeare put it best in Julius Caesar when he said being hurt by a friend is “… the most unkindest cut of all” and that ingratitude is “more strong than traitors' arms”. It hurts when people say bad things about you, and it hurts even more when it is someone you thought of as a trusted colleague, or even a friend. Feeling betrayed is understandable. You can get professional help in working through those feelings by contacting your local Lawyer Assistance Program. Talking this through with someone else can be a huge help.  

In the meantime, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Why are you hearing this? This is filtering back to you through some kind of channel. That may be your former-and-now-re-homed clients reporting it to you. It may be other lawyers overhearing the comments and passing them on to you. Consider the source, and especially why that source is passing this on to you. It’s pretty rare for someone to report something bad to you because they agree with what is being said about you. Usually, if someone is bringing this to your attention it’s because the comments are inconsistent with how that someone views you. Think of the last time you went to someone you thought was a jerk and asked, “Hey did you know people are calling you a jerk?” Having trouble thinking of an example? That’s probably because you’ve never done it. You would only ask that question if it was contrary to your own view of the person you were asking.
  2. It’s almost certain that each new lawyer who has taken on your re-homed files has had ideas about how to handle the matter that are different than how you thought was best.  Lawyers have individual views of the best strategies and approaches to take to solving a legal problem. Put two lawyers in a room to talk about a legal problem and you’ll probably end up with three or more opinions about the best way to solve it. That disagreement is the product of original thinking.  That diversity of views is also invaluable. It can sometimes come across as a personal attack, yes. If I were to hazard a guess as to what these lawyers were actually saying, it would be that they have a different view of the best way forward than you had. That’s no surprise. It’s also no surprise that by the time that message got to you, it was a garbled hurtful mess. Some of us are more tactful than others. Sometimes when we mean to express a difference in strategic or legal thought, we may be blunter than intended, or even offensive. Passion about our work and our thoughts will do that.
  3. Does a personal ad hominem attack have any bearing on giving a client good advice?  Nope. That would be a polished up, lawyerified version of the schoolyard taunts you heard as a kid that usually started with “Your mother…” - they are hurtful, yes, but the person who comes off the worst is the person saying them.  If there really are lawyers out there who really are saying bad things about you, they’re the ones building a lousy reputation, not you. If it is happening, this is likely a product of the other lawyer’s own insecurity. They have a new client, and they need to make themselves sound big, indeed better than what the client had before. The easiest way to do this is not by proving their own greatness, but by lowering the bar by denigrating you, so they can more easily surpass you in their own eyes, if not those of the client. One thing you can usually count on is that other lawyers usually act in their own enlightened self-interest. How many of them really want to come off sounding that silly to their clients? Somewhere between zero and none. 
  4. You probably didn’t come up with this idea that you had a good reputation out of a vacuum. You probably developed it because you had successes and positive feedback from clients, colleagues, judges and others about your abilities. Like any good lawyer you relied on first-hand evidence for that conclusion. Have a look back at that first-hand evidence. Reflect on the times when you have done well. Not to go all Lawyer on you, but the rumours you’ve heard are hearsay. Your inner judge presiding over the trial of your reputation should either exclude them or at least give them very little weight. Don’t let this low-quality evidence sway your decision about yourself. 
  5. You also probably didn’t make this career change for no reason. I hope your new role is fulfilling and nourishing for the way you see yourself. Focus on developing who you are now in your current environment. Even if some small fraction of these rumoured criticisms about your conduct of past files were true, they have nothing to do with what you can do in your new role. Find ways of enjoying what you are doing now.
  6. Lastly, there will always be people who are unhappy with your work. Clients, colleagues, and supervisors won’t always be overjoyed by how a legal matter progresses. That’s hard to accept sometimes, but it’s true. Don’t let how you perceive your own value be governed by the occasional bad review. One cognitive bias we humans are cursed with is called Availability Bias. We tend to place much more significance on things that stand out in our memory because they are unusual or dramatic. Why do people think violent crime is rising when it has been falling for decades? The lead story on the news is usually something out of the ordinary and usually bad or upsetting. That extraordinary character of bad news makes it easier to remember, and therefore when we think about the state of the world, we tend to remember those bad news lead stories and forget the many times, and the vast majority of interactions when nothing memorable happened. 

    Those bad news stories in your brain about your reputation are much the same. It’s easy to remember the one time someone reported dissatisfaction with the work you did. It’s just as easy to forget the clients who paid their bill without objection, or came back to you with a new problem, or referred a friend to you. You got to where you are by being good. Don’t let the occasional dismal headline make you forget that. It is easy to latch on to the negative comments and the hurt others may inflict. Unfortunately, those people will always be out there. Often, we can stave off this negativity by surrounding ourselves in a supportive and nurturing environment. Hopefully the one you have moved into is just that.

Be well,