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Q. I am a male senior associate, and I am having trouble with a female senior associate from another firm who’s working for the same client. She flirts endlessly, calls late at night to see if I’m in the office, and suggests “drinks to talk over the case,” and so forth. I am not interested, but I’m worried that it will be awkward to work on this case together if I do a real blow-off. She’s also basically a nice person and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. By the way, I have to say I’m much more sympathetic now to women who get pursued by men who can’t take a hint. A. You’re right that this is awkward, and it’s great that you’re sensitive enough to want to deal with the situation so that she isn’t too badly hurt. I can pass on advice that legions of women have accumulated from time immemorial. This is tempered, however, with advice that you must do the best thing for the client. That obviously doesn’t require dating someone you don’t want to, but it does require a heightened awareness that your actions don’t exist in a vacuum. There are several possible approaches. The first is to be totally honest but sympathetic. You can simply say to her what’s going on — that you sense she’s interested, that you don’t think it would work, that you don’t want to hurt her feelings because you like her, and want to keep working together amicably. It’s hard to do, but the best interests of the client would weigh in favor of this approach. You could even say, “I’m concerned that the client might be affected, and I want this relationship to be very professional.” This approach doesn’t happen very often because it requires the most courage. Then there’s a more indirect approach. Establish a buddy relationship by frequent references to working “as a team” and saying that you think of her as a sister. Throw in references about going out with a friend (whom you name). Ask her who she’s going out with. Finally, there’s the classic “big chill” where you duck her calls and avoid her. People do take hints, over time. This is the most common approach. It may be complicated in your case because to some extent you can’t really avoid her, which argues for the first approach. As a result of this experience, try to be an agent of change in your workplace. If women complain about being annoyed or harassed by clients or co-counsel (and it happens a lot), don’t dismiss them. Many people think, “Well, you should give the clients a little more room” and leave it up to the person involved to struggle with the situation. Now you can communicate the simple understanding that you have gained in a way that can help others feel they aren’t alone. Q. I am a partner who is aware of a situation in another department where a younger female associate is being somewhat harassed by a client (inappropriate remarks, like saying she’s wearing a nice dress, asking her about her social life, sitting uncomfortably close to her, closing the door when it’s not necessary). I found this out because an associate in my department mentioned it in passing, then swore me to secrecy after she saw that I was concerned, saying that the woman doesn’t want anyone to know because she’s afraid no one will believe her, the client will get angry, we’ll lose the business, and so forth. I’m in a quandary because I obviously don’t want her to be putting up with this behavior, but what if I reported it to the partner in charge of the particular case and something happened to the associate and her career? I’d feel very guilty if she suffered unfairly in the aftermath. Also, the behavior involved is irritating but not egregious in nature. What should I do? A. There are a number of things you can do in this situation. But doing nothing is not one of them. You are in a position of responsibility and therefore have obligations beyond those of a bystander or friend who happens to know confidential information. Clients do 18 percent of the harassing in firms, according to Dr. Fraeda Klein of Klein Associates in San Francisco, who consults with professional service firms on issues of bias and diversity. And often firms that are severe with people within the firm on harassment issues turn a blind eye to client misbehavior. Those who raise complaints about clients are sometimes quietly marginalized. There are two dimensions here. One is the legal/organizational dimension, dictated by law. The other is more informal, responding to your legitimate concerns about protecting the associate’s career and your probable concern about breaching a confidence. On the legal and organizational side, it’s quite clear that you have a duty to do something about it. You are a “supervisor” under the law, according to employment lawyer Lynne Anderson at Newark, N.J.’s Sills Cummis Radin Tischman Epstein & Gross, and have to address the situation even where someone complains but asks the employer not to do anything. If you don’t, Anderson points out, you expose the firm to liability for failing to prevent and correct harassment. Anderson advises that the firm proceed in a confidential manner, with the designated, trained firm members responsible for responding to internal complaints. The associate has to be assured that there won’t be any retaliation, and the investigation has to be discreet. “For example,” Anderson says, “having the associate called into a conference room to be questioned by the chair of the department or the head of the management committee will not necessarily serve the goal of having a policy that encourages employees to report harassment or inappropriate behavior before it becomes severe or pervasive. The investigation should be done on a confidential, ‘need to know’ basis,” she continues, “and should not be openly discussed with other members of the firm.” You and others can work with the partner in charge to devise solutions if there indeed is a problem, but Anderson warns that the solution shouldn’t jeopardize the associate’s career. If she’s removed from the case, for instance, make sure she’s put on another case of equal standing so it doesn’t look like she’s been demoted. More informally, you can handle the problem in a variety of ways. For instance, you can quietly tell the informant that you want very much to preserve your relationship with her but that you have broader duties. Tell her that any investigation will be conducted discreetly and that she shouldn’t talk about it either. Don’t be tempted to shift responsibility to yourself by approaching the partner in charge and saying that you personally have observed or become aware of the questionable behavior, and suggesting vigilance and follow-up. If you do that, you will become part of the formal investigation, and it will get pretty awkward to keep up what is a falsehood. (Also, if the information related is false, you could be repeating completely unwarranted and inaccurate information that causes other people tremendous grief.) A better approach is to say to the partner in charge, “We need to look into this situation, which I believe involves Jane. I’m reluctant to tell you how I know that, not only to preserve my relationships but also to encourage people to come forward about these things.” Q. What do you think of firms that back away from supporting practices that were once hot and now are in the doldrums? We have people who feel like second-class citizens because their practice area isn’t in vogue right now. There’s got to be a better way. A. In any context, the issue of short-term versus long-term thinking is a tough one. There’s always a reason to favor the immediate crisis or current set of circumstances over the long-term, more-balanced, and holistic view. But there’s no question — and the evidence is overwhelming — that organizations that can integrate long-term thinking are more successful overall than those who tend to lurch from one short-term solution to another. We’ve seen these patterns repeatedly, especially with real estate, bankruptcy, and technology. As Phyllis Weiss Haserot points out, “Firms may be overzealous in adding attorneys (usually expending sizable recruiting fees) and resources to capitalize on an area when it is hot, and then back away or go as far as pulling the plug when it cools down, even if it is an area with good future promise.” Haserot, who is president of Practice Development Counsel, a New York-based business development and organizational culture consulting and coaching firm, notes that “this is short-term, reactionary thinking rather than taking a strategic position and investing in it for the long-term. When the area turns up again, the firm will be caught unprepared to handle the work and will have demoralized a significant portion of their personnel. This way of operating discourages loyalty and encourages people to keep the lines open with headhunters and jump from place to place.” The difficulty is getting the mind-set in place that allows a firm to take the time to validate the long-term view. On the one hand, it may seem logical and au courant to be nimble and responsive to clients’ immediate needs, but it will seem less impressive if the practice area you’ve neglected suddenly roars back. One secret is to put in place long-term systems and ways of thinking in all areas of the firm — recruiting, advancement, business development, and so forth — so that forward-looking thinking becomes a habit, and isn’t applied like a bandage to just one aspect of the firm’s workings. Another benefit is that, because inevitably all these systems depend on one another, all the long-term strategic thinking and practices will work together to create greater synergy, momentum, and results. You’ll often hear people lament, “We don’t have time to do all this long-term thinking,” but if you take the time, you’ll have the time and will get the results that you want. Haserot recommends, “First, each firm should have a strategic framework to operate within, and partners must commit to it, with review and adjustments at reasonable intervals. The strategic plan or framework needs to be based on market research, not partner navel-gazing. Making strategic ‘investments’ means that all partners cannot expect the same compensation they had in their best year every year. Remember that businesses are subject to the laws of supply and demand.” She also suggests a variety of projects for lawyers who are in doldrum practice areas. For example, they can spend more time marketing the whole firm, with credit for work they bring in for others. Or they can cross-train in another area. They can also work on knowledge-management projects and development of new services and products to make the firm stronger and better able to capitalize on market changes. They can prevent the “second-class citizen” syndrome by continuing to earn their keep. Firms’ fickle attitudes toward practice areas — today you’re in, tomorrow you’re out — contributes mightily to cynicism about loyalty in the workplace. A businesslike and measured approach to all practice areas, whether they’re hot or not, will not only stand the firm in good stead when today’s hot areas cool, but also will pay off immeasurably in lower turnover and good will within the workplace, as well as saving all the costs that go along with turnover of valued professionals. Holly English, a former litigator, is principal consultant with Values At Work in Montclair, N.J., which helps organizations build high-performance workplaces. She also writes law and management articles. She may be reached at [email protected]

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