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So here you are, starting work at a firm. You are fully expecting to wow the partners with your intuitive grasp of the Rule Against Perpetuities and other esoterica that served you so well in law school. You may have envisioned a workplace full of gruff but loveable partners and senior associates, working as a team and ready to make a real attorney out of you. Or you may have walked in expecting the drama often seen on TV or in the movies. You are likely in for a rude awakening. Welcome to the real world of law firms. Like most things in the real world, it’s not nirvana. Some people you work with might be not only unlovable, but also fundamentally inconsiderate, to put it mildly. Unlike on TV, there is little comic relief at firms, and virtually nothing gets neatly resolved in a one-hour episode. In addition, as a first-year associate, it’s doubtful you’ll be first-chair in the courtroom (if you see a courtroom at all) or negotiate megadollar deals. If you asked the right questions in your interviews and are very lucky, you’re working with sweethearts who treat you with respect, genuinely want to give you interesting work and will help you learn. If you didn’t and you aren’t, you’ve probably figured out by now that when your firm recruited you, they didn’t let you meet the attorneys with the most “difficult” personalities. Now, like it or not, you have to negotiate these landmines and get along with these people who are in charge of your workload, your performance evaluations and your financial future. How might you accomplish this, you ask? Well, the same rule applies now that did in law school. In fact, the same rule applies at the firm that should apply in every part of your life. If you haven’t learned this by now, commit it to memory: No matter how many times you have been screamed at, no matter how tired you are, no matter how many times you have explained and no matter how badly your day has gone — be nice to everyone. No matter how well you did in law school or what your parents tell you, you are not the smartest person on earth. Even if you are, it doesn’t matter, so be nice. Learn to be nice if you have to for your own well-being and for the well-being of future generations of baby lawyers. Some people might say that it would be better for your career to ruthlessly crush those who cross you and to scream at people for results. Really, though, aren’t the people you know who’ve followed the not-nice route pretty unhappy people? And are they, as a group, really any more successful than their nicer counterparts? In addition, people have long memories for unpleasant experiences — yell at your assistant and see how quickly he jumps to volunteer to stay late when you need help after 5 p.m. Gossip about your co-workers and see if it doesn’t come back to haunt you. Try viciously criticizing subordinates and see if you get anyone to help you on the next deal. Or, just take our word for it: Being nice is good and good for you. Tragically, as you already may have discovered, not everyone follows this rule. The fact is that any random sample of lawyers will contain a few difficult personalities. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that being a lawyer can make a perfectly normal person exacting, grouchy and tense — never mind what it does to those of us who are not normal. A lawyer’s day is long and full of high-stakes issues. Some lawyers spend about half their lives — literally 12 of 24 hours a day — working on high drama issues with millions of dollars on the line, a client’s reputation in question or someone’s freedom at stake. It’s enough to make anyone a little touchy. On top of that, and as much as we hate to mention this, if you add to this all the personal baggage people bring with them, you have a recipe for trouble. CODE OF CONDUCT You’ve heard the stories about how unhappy some lawyer is because a partner or senior associate makes his life miserable. Most of that time, the colleague in question is The Boss, with a capital T, capital B. There are two possible reasons for this unhappiness: The lawyer really is an underachiever and not up for the task at hand, or quite possibly, the boss really is a jerk. Either way, you’re in a bad situation. If your problem is that you’re an underachiever, the issue may be that you shouldn’t practice law at all (that’s fodder for another article, but it’s something to keep at the back of your mind). Assuming your problem is not underachievement, you might be surprised to know how many lawyers out there also are in your situation — stuck between a rock and a hard place. That, in a sense, is the good news: You’re not alone. The bad news is that if your boss truly is a jerk, you can’t change her. Why not, you ask? Because you cannot teach an old dog new tricks — at least not while the old dog controls a substantial amount of business. OK, there are exceptions, but they’re rare and you definitely shouldn’t waste your time hoping for a miracle. Save your hopes for more realistic possibilities, like seeing a unicorn, finding Aladdin’s lamp or watching Texas A&M beat the University of Texas in football. The important thing to remember is that you have options — two of them. You can get out now and move to a place where you have done enough due diligence to figure out if your potential boss is a jerk, or wait it out. FYI: The sentence, “So, you have told me everything great about this job, now, tell me the bad stuff” should, in some form, always make its way into your conversation during an interview. If you decide to wait it out, be patient and try not to let this person make you bitter. What comes around does go around, and if your boss is mean to you, he is probably mean to a lot of other people, too. The Jerk approach can work for a while, but it will not work forever. It is just a matter of time before he or she is mean to the wrong person. There is always someone out there that is smarter, nicer and more powerful who will get tired of the nonsense. Whichever alternative you choose, staying or leaving, conduct yourself with grace and dignity and remember the cardinal rule: Be nice. If you maintain your equanimity and treat other people with respect, no matter how your boss has treated you, you have won. In the end, your conduct is the only thing you can control. And it’s the only thing separating you from the jerks. Tish Hinojosa Elliott is a legal search consultant in the Austin office of Prescott Legal Search, where she specializes in permanent lateral attorney placement. Prior to becoming a legal recruiter, she was a litigator in the products liability section of Clark, Thomas & Winters in Austin. She received her B.A. from the University of Texas in 1991 and her J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center in 1996.

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