Anyone who has spent five minutes working in a law firm has undoubtedly made this observation: Lawyers can be difficult, unpleasant and nasty. Yes, yes, I know. Many lawyers are perfectly lovely human beings, but more than a few are just plain jerks.
In fact, Stanford University management professor Robert Sutton thinks calling horrible bosses “jerks” is too generous. He prefers a more graphic term: “assholes.” Ten years ago, he wrote the definitive, go-to book on the subject: “The No Asshole Rule,” which passionately argued that businesses must rid themselves of bullies and restore civility.
Sutton just released a follow-up: “The Asshole Survival Guide.” Here’s an edited version of my chat with the authority on corporate A-holes.
Q: You already wrote the treatise on assholes. What drove you to write more on the subject?
A: I got deluged with personal stories from people who said, “I’m treated like dirt. Now what do I do?” One email was from a law clerk who worked for a judge who yelled all the time. She said her co-workers were so desperate that they’d pound their head on their desks. She said that she couldn’t quit because she had student loans, and that quitting would be career suicide. So it got me thinking about how to deal with assholes.
Q: I can’t think of too many junior lawyers who haven’t worked for at least one assholeish partner. How would you rate lawyers on the asshole scale?
A: I don’t think they’re uniquely horrible. My wife [Marina Park] was the managing partner of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro. It was the first Am Law 100 firm to be led by a woman [Mary Cranston, who was chair]. Though it was progressive, the nature of law is such that people are aggressive, especially in litigation. My definition of an asshole is someone who demeans and disrespects others—and that’s just part of litigation. The problem is they can’t turn it off. I remember I was at a party with Pillsbury partners, and they treated me like I was being deposed.
Q: You really did have an insider’s view of law firms. Did your wife come home with terrible stories about her day?
A: Pillsbury probably had a higher percentage of civilized people than most places. But if you work in a large firm, there are certain hallmarks of practice that breed jerks: time pressures, exhaustion, status differences and competition.
Q: But lawyers seem to have a terrible reputation. Is it unfair?
A: Compared to Hollywood or film industry types or some in Silicon Valley, lawyers are lovely people. Am Law 100 firms are tough places. And the clients! The chances of dealing with asshole clients are even higher!
Q: I’ve read that some businesses implemented no jerk rules as a result of your original book. Do you think they’re working?
A: It’s useful if you actually live it. Otherwise, you’re a hypocrite, which is even worse than having no policy at all.
Q: I’m skeptical that a no jerk rule would ever work in a law firm, given the eat-what-you-kill business structure at most firms. If you’re an asshole but have oodles of business, can firms afford to get rid of you?
A: That’s the challenge for every law firm, service company and academia. If you have a superstar jerk, they can do a lot of damage in the long run. There’s a financial risks to having jerks as partners. I call it TCA: total cost of assholes.
Q: You don’t think much of anti-bullying laws either, right?
A: They’re like having a no jerk rule. They don’t have much teeth, and the question is whether you will do something about it. There’s more teeth for things like sexism and racism. In terms of fighting back, you have to ask how much power you have, whether there are other people to back you, and whether you have documentation [of the abuse].
Q: You go into coping mechanisms in your book. You talk about using distance—physical and psychological—to deal with a bully. You also spend a lot of time on humor as a tool.
A: Assholes can be pretty funny. If you can giggle at them, humor can be powerful.
Q: To me, bullies and assholes will always be out there. Any tips for dealing with the assholes at the different stages in our careers?
A: Stage one: You’ve got to take it. It helps to find ways to be detached, like telling yourself: This too will pass. In stage two, when you’re more senior and powerful, you have to be careful not to turn into a jerk yourself. In stage three, you should take on those who misbehave. Realizing it’s not effective to be an asshole is the height of civility.
Q: Speaking of civility, we now have a president who’s anything but civil. He seems to be a textbook asshole. Do you think we’ll have an asshole renaissance?
A: I won’t comment on [President Donald] Trump. People get too emotional. He’s such a volatile subject that I don’t think we can have a constructive conversation on the topic.
Q: How can you not comment on Trump? He’s the commander in chief, the ultimate boss.
A: People are good at sussing out culture. When someone like Gordy Davidson [partner of Fenwick & West] walks into a room, everyone behaves better because he’s such a mensch. But when you have someone who treats people with disrespect, shit rolls downhill.