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Encouragement and practical tips for people suffering from bullying in legal services

Some people need to get away on holiday more than others – because they are subject to workplace bullying.

Earlier this year the International Bar Association (IBA) published a survey report in which it said that

bullying is rampant within the legal profession.

In this post, partly drawing on my own experience of bullying, I would like to give some encouragement and practical tips for people suffering from bullying whilst working in legal services.


Defining workplace bullying

Broadly, workplace bullying can be defined as unwanted aggressive behaviour repeated or escalated over time.

This can be distinguished from differences of opinion, constructive criticism and honest feedback.  All of these can feel uncomfortable to the recipient, but they do not amount to bullying per se.

Most of us know bullying when we experience it and become aware of it when it is meted out to others.


Why do bully’s bully?

Often motivation for the perpetration of workplace bullying is the direct opposite of schoolyard bullying.  It is not about picking on people who appear weak.

In workplace situations bullying most often occurs because the bully feels threatened someone, who then becomes a target for their bullying.  The target may have a range of skills, qualifications, experience or simply an overall approach to work that for some reason makes them appear a threat to the bully.


My experience of bullying

I have been on the receiving end of bullying twice in my career.

The first time was in a law firm with the bully being a senior equity partner.  I was junior – a trainee solicitor, although a mature one.  Why pick on me?  I still don’t know for sure. The firm was establishing a computer law department.  I had by then experience of software development following post graduate degrees in law and computing.  At the time, no-one else in the new department knew as much about law and computing as I did.  I say this as a statement of fact, rather than a boast.

The principal modus operandi of the partner concerned was to constantly undermine me, by giving me too little work and in indulging in constant unjustified criticism.  I pushed back.  I felt confident enough to counter his criticism from a technical computing and legal point of view.  Our meetings where bullying took place or was attempted were always 1:1 meetings (I now understand better that bullies in professional service firms rarely bully in public).  Unfortunately I can’t say that pushing back helped me much, as the imbalance of power between us (and bullying is ultimately always a warped expression of power) was just too great.

The second time I was on the receiving end of bullying was while working in a different role, in a different organisation about 15 years later.  My head of department engaged in cyber bullying.  He would send the most awfully worded emails constantly.

Writing this feels very odd.  Bullying by email – is this a thing?  It is and at the time I remember a feeling of dread every time one of his emails reached my inbox.

With this person I came to realise he was just a serial bully.  He did this to everyone, albeit on a 1:1 basis.  When I challenged him face to face he would act all reasonable and say ‘its only an email’.  Again, I thought I was alone but when I went into the office after he abruptly left the organisation I found my colleagues celebrating.  Lots of people were saying how they too had been mistreated by the manager concerned.


What can you do if you are being bullied at work?

In its report the IBA set out 10 recommendations to assist with combating bullying in the legal profession.  Quite naturally perhaps, given its world-wide overview, the IBA’s recommendations are rather general in nature (such as raising awareness about bulling, revision and implementation of anti-bullying policies and providing anti-bullying training etc).

These recommendations are fine as a starting point, but I’d like to suggest a few more specific things to bear in mind if you are a target of workplace bullying:

  1. If you are being bullied, you must appreciate that it is not your fault. There is no contributory negligence with bullying.  The fault lies with the bully.
  2. Have a go at pushing back against the bully. You need to be assertive, prepared to stand your ground and call out the bullying behaviour.  Many people find this hard to do, but it is worth a try.  Sometimes if a bully receives push-back they will stop.  Beware though of engaging in a longer drawn out dispute with the bully.  Often, they are not interested in properly engaging with you, but wearing you down.  If early indications are the push-back is not working then disengage and keep communications to the bare minimum required to function professionally.
  3. Build up your reserves of resilience. I think everyone should do this anyway, whether they are being bullied or not.  Consider what activities outside work help you relax, recover and re-charge.  Exercise is a great way of cultivating resilience.  I have exercised regularly (running, gym and golf) most of my adult life and I am sure I could not function properly without it.  Similarly, consider your diet too.  We all know that high-sugar fast food does not help us as much mentally or physically as fresh foods do.  So try to avoid fast food and processed food.  Avoid eating at your desk too.  A quick walk outside during lunch-time can provide, quite literally, some breathing space from the daily attrition of bullying behaviour.
  4. Talk to trusted colleagues about what you are experiencing. As I found out too late, some colleagues may well be experiencing the same bullying behaviour.  There is strength in numbers.  At the very least you will be able to build a support group of like-minded people.
  5. Most importantly, keep a record of each instance of bullying. I think it would help to provide context around each bullying episode too.  Stripped out of context I think a lot of bullying behaviour can be made to look like robust conversation or instructions.  Understood in context, including the repeated frequency of the instances recorded, it becomes much clearer that bullying behaviour is taking place.
  6. When you have enough evidence on file, present it to your Human Resources department and / or most senior management team. Ironically, I have seen law firm partners try to intimidate and bully their own HR departments.  Good HR departments will act on behalf of the bullied.  If you have the misfortune to have a weak HR department and an organisational culture where bullying is tolerated then ultimately you may have no option other than to leave the organisation (the IBA survey found that 65% of respondents who had been bullied ultimately left the workplace in question).
  7. In U.K you can take your employer to court if the bullying behaviour amounts to harassment as defined in the Equality Act 2010 (find out more about this here).  Other jurisdictions also have laws which can help prevent or provide redress for workplace bullying.


About that holiday…

Many people use the Summer holiday to contemplate their current work and consider potential career advancement.  A change of scene and relaxed frame of mind often encourages thoughts about what to do over the next 12 months or so.  I think this is part of the reason why September often feels like the start of a new term or year even for people without children of school age.

If you do find yourself contemplating a change in career trajectory, perhaps because you are being targeted by a bully in your present role, you may want to consider becoming a legal project manager or working in another role in legal operations.

Generally, I think there is much less bullying in project management teams and by project managers than elsewhere.  The reason for this is that project managers and their delivery teams understand that things get done better in an atmosphere of respect and co-operation.  It follows that project delivery teams can be very supportive environments too (at least, this is what I have found).

There are quite a lot of roles currently available for prospective legal project managers in the U.K and in other jurisdictions, especially the USA.

You might want to check to see if you have some of the core skills required of legal project managers and perhaps take a short legal project management skills self assessment questionnaire to help place your skills in context with the skills most sought from legal project managers.

If you have any gaps in your skill-set you would be welcome to attend any of my legal project management courses or any similar courses run by my colleagues at the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM).


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