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A law firm can be a frustrating place to work. Unclear assignments, unreasonable demands and conflicting priorities can produce a stressful atmosphere, especially in the early years. But what if the normal problems of law-firm life are coupled with some serious unfairness or impropriety? A co-worker falsely accuses you of messing up a project. A manager repeatedly assigns you only drudge work, reserving the best work for his or her pet associate. A co-worker makes use of your ideas and work product, as if it were their own, giving you no credit. How do you respond? Let’s discuss some key components for effective complaining. The goal here is not to provide a script or standard form for complaints. Rather, the aim is to raise awareness of the factors that can determine whether your complaint will be heard, and acted upon, in a way that will satisfy your needs. Diagnosis Begin by thinking about the problem from the standpoint of diagnosing its causes, as a prelude to creative exploration of solutions. Keep the following points in mind: Not all problems require solutions. Some problems (e.g., stress from deadlines) are inherent in the practice of law. Other problems (e.g., the fact that an IP boutique firm may not give you the chance to practice securities law) are situational, and cannot be solved but by your own action (i.e., changing law firms). Not all problems can best be solved by others. If your secretary does not follow your directions well, you must take steps to ensure that your instructions are understood (e.g., writing them down or asking your secretary to summarize how the instructions will be carried out). Running to a supervisor to demand a new secretary almost certainly is not the best (or at least the first) solution to such a problem. Not all problems require confrontation. Some petty conflict is a natural part of any human relationship. Learning to recognize that not every affront to your dignity and sensibilities is a personal attack that demands immediate address is a key part of professional maturation. Lawyers should have thick skins and easy laughs. Save your complaining ammo for the big game. You do not want a reputation as a complainer. Do your very best to stay positive at all times. Compliment others. Express gratitude for the good things (experience and training) you get from a law firm experience. Help others when they have problems. Against this backdrop of positive attitude, your complaints, if legitimate and well-framed, will mostly likely be taken seriously. Planning Once you have determined that your problem deserves a complaint, you must do some homework before lodging the complaint: Get your facts straight. Make sure you can accurately describe the problem. That may mean taking notes or outlining the sequence of relevant events. It may also require speaking to other participants in the incident to get their view of events. Often, it may suggest confronting the perpetrator to make sure that the affront was intentional. (This latter step, in many instances, will prompt an apology and change in behavior sufficient to avoid the need for further complaint). Identify what you want. This may be the single most important step in effective complaining. Venting hurt feelings has its place, but almost always hinders an effective complaint. Go ahead and vent to a significant other who will listen. But when it comes time to make a complaint (to a person who can solve your problem), be prepared to focus on what you want, not on your hurt feelings and anger. Make sure your request is reasonable and do-able. Again, do some homework to determine what redress may have been given to others in your situation. If possible, ask for suggestions from trusted colleagues and mentors. If it helps you to collect your thoughts, write out a list of options and compare the pros and cons of each one, before you make your complaint. Plan out the process for your complaint. Where is the most appropriate place to start? Where should you go if you get no satisfaction? What is the time frame within which you can reasonably demand some solution to your problem? How (and when) do you plan to follow up on your complaint? Thinking through these procedural issues will help ensure that your complaint does not get lost in the rush of office events. Further, when you present your complaint, with your facts straight, your request identified, and a clear concept of how you propose to proceed, you will look (and feel) more professional, and more confident in the rectitude of your complaint. Your evident assertiveness and thoroughness is very likely to impress the complaint recipient. Presentation The final step, in most instances, should be the most brief. Few people appreciate long-winded complaints (in writing or by oration). Take steps to make sure that your brief encounter will have the maximum beneficial effect: Complain to the right person. Do not tell everyone you see about your problem. A widespread broadcast of your woes may earn you a reputation as a complainer. Worse, your message may be delivered by the grapevine to the person(s) who can help you, but without your ability to shape the solution you prefer. Thus, you may get an offhand, premature (and wrong) answer to your problem. Further, avoid the temptation to “go immediately to the top” with your complaint. In most instances, the big boss will delegate the problem, all the while questioning your judgment. The underling who finally gets tagged with responsibility for the problem, moreover, may not appreciate your unwillingness to follow channels, or the grumpy direction from the big boss to “take this problem off my hands.” Carefully prepare your complaint. Do not send a complaining e-mail ten minutes after an incident. You almost certainly will not sound professional. Your tone may seem angry or petulant, and even your misspellings and grammatical errors will suggest to the recipient that you have not thoroughly considered your complaint. Choose the best time to make your complaint. Consider making an appointment to see the complaint recipient, which should impress upon your audience the seriousness of your complaint. Do not leave a “stealth complaint,” some late night missive by e-mail, or a note on the desk, which may well be ignored. At very least, if you send a complaint without prior contact, make sure to follow up, asking perhaps “when do you have time to discuss the problem I outlined?” In addition to brevity in the complaint, do not forget the other factors outlined above. Strive to emphasize that this is a serious problem, that you have tried to solve the problem through your own efforts, and that you need a solution to the problem to perform your work more effectively. Above all, focus on the solution you propose. Explain (briefly) why you chose it, and why the recipient should adopt it. Try to anticipate, and be prepared to answer, questions concerning your complaint, and your proposed solution. Finish the discussion with a timetable for action (and, at least, a planned date for you to follow-up on the status of a solution to your problem). Do not make threats. Do not whine. Stay positive and professional. Express the hopeful view that the problem can be solved. Remain tenacious in pursuing a solution. Steven Bennett is a partner in the New York City offices of Jones Day and a member of the firm’s Training Committee. His publications include The Path to Partnership: A Guide For Junior Associates , (Praeger 2004).

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