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Lawyers are people, too. We need help with employment issues. That’s what I tell my nonlawyer friends. My friends seem to forget that lawyers face the same challenges as businesspeople — in the role of managers dealing with employees or in the role of employees dealing with bosses. As someone who has helped many lawyers who have problems with their employees — or as employees — I can tell you that lawyers in particular tend to react badly to employment problems, often to their detriment. Those who keep their wits about them fare better. The challenges seem to be growing as the legal environment evolves. It is axiomatic that as firms grow in size and complexity, the potential for employee problems increases. The sense of collegiality of a smaller organization is replaced by a more business-like approach — which is, overall, probably desirable. Inevitably, though, personality clashes or differences erupt. Often, simple differences result in suits. Since an employee cannot prevail merely by claiming that his boss is a jerk, he often will claim that his boss is a discriminatory jerk, even if discrimination is not a factor. If the employee can maneuver himself into a protected status (based on age, race, gender, etc.), the employee instantly has some leverage in the workplace game of “gotcha.” Sadly, some lawyer-managers do exhibit hostility against some employees — and an employee’s protected status may be claimed as the motivation for the hostility. Lawyers in corporate departments have built-in conflicts in the roles they fill. They find themselves faced with pressures to temper their best legal judgments according to the needs and reactions of their only client; and, many lawyers find themselves trying to avoid being a victim of the “shoot-the-messenger” syndrome. At the same time, managers of legal departments also find themselves dealing with generational differences with the lawyers they supervise. The results of these differences are often ineffective communication, which ultimately causes deterioration of the employee-employer relationship. STRESSED OUT Any difficult employment problem creates stress — for the lawyer-employee and the lawyer-manager. Often, such stress brings out the worst in lawyers. The initial instinct often is to do the wrong thing: attack. While being aggressive feels good and perhaps natural to the lawyer, it seldom is the right thing to do. Remember, this kind of conduct, whether as employee or employer, ultimately may be assessed by a jury of nonlawyers who do not understand or appreciate the aggressive atmosphere in which lawyers practice. Aggressive conduct often will play right in to lawyer stereotypes. If you are the employer, be nice and fair. Juries naturally will side with someone who keeps his cool in trying circumstances and reacts with dignity in the face of indignities. If you are the employer, make certain the employee (yes, even if the employee is a lawyer) has been given a clear understanding (in writing, of course) of his deficiencies and has had ample opportunities to correct them. Due process is the key. Juries expect you to give an employee opportunities for training, coaching and counseling. Make certain all communications are of a friendly, businesslike tone, regardless of the reaction. Do not be baited into making an acerbic statement that we’re all tempted to make. If you are the employee, seek a clear understanding of your perceived deficiencies and make every effort to correct them, even if you do not agree with the criticisms. Conduct yourself with dignity regardless of the response. Figure out your points of leverage; remember that business leverage may be far more important than legal leverage. Read your employment contract, if you have one, or get one if you can. Often, your employment contract will provide recipes for exercising leverage. Whether you are an employee or employer, be careful with whom you seek counsel or share information. In the business world, alliances change with the passage of time. Following these basic principles will help lawyers — as bosses or dealing with bosses — navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of the evolving business of practicing law. The result will be a more satisfying work environment for lawyers.

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