Many attorneys have had experience dealing with alpha personalities, based on the attendance at the panel on “Managing Alpha Personalities,” at the 2nd Annual Women, Influence and Power in Law conference.

However, not every lawyer has had explicit calls for their resignation; been pregnant while having tables pounded in front of them by opposing counsel; or had a union negotiator inform her she was “acting like a bitch” during a negotiation. But those were real-life examples offered up by audience members in the session discussion.

Regina Petty, a partner at Fisher & Phillips, described common traits of alphas such as egocentricism, narcissism and an inability to listen.

Panelists also discussed their own examples dealing with alpha personalities. Ashley Watson, senior vice president and chief ethics and compliance officer at Hewlett-Packard Co., described the challenges of dealing with subordinates who are saboteurs. She said she has found the most success in listening to them, but being firm when necessary. “Being liked is overrated,” she said to applause from the audience.

Of course, women also face challenges that men don’t, since women tend to be judged more harshly than men when behaving in a firm or aggressive way. Part of dealing with alphas is accepting that life is not fair. “Sometimes, you have to take your sense of justice and put it aside,” Watson advised.

But many lawyers can possess alpha tendencies, even if they aren’t aware of them. Miko Ando Brown, a partner with Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, described a period several years ago when it seemed like all of her professional relationships seemed contentious, even those with co-counsel. “I started to think, maybe it is me,” she said. So she turned to a mentor who advised her to consider how her concise approaches could be causing some misunderstandings. “I would respond to an email with one word, if I could. I assumed I was saving everyone time,” she said. Her mentor advised her to consider how that approach may actually offend some people. That could be particularly true for older, more experienced male attorneys who found themselves dealing with a younger woman coming in on the eve of a trial to serve as co-counsel. Her mentor suggested spending a few extra seconds on emails, asking about the recipient’s weekend and ending with a pleasant sign-off. “Part of me was like, ‘ick,’” she recalled. “But I tried it, and it has completely changed my life.”

The situation with opposing counsel is different, though. “If opposing counsel is getting mad at you, keep doing what you are doing,” Brown said. “It means you are winning.”

Julie Crotty, deputy director of mediation and business strategy for FINRA, outlined several steps to deal with alpha personalities. Taking mediation classes can offer very useful approaches and insights, she suggested. Other potentially helpful steps:

  • Don’t take the alpha’s behavior personally;
  • Focus on people’s needs, and try to find roles for people that play to their strengths. Much of that involves thinking about what’s going on under the surface so you can offer them what they need, even if doing so is irritating;
  • Set expectations at the beginning, which is easier to do in mediation.

Crotty, who is six feet tall, said she has also found it helpful to stand up when she needs to command people’s attention.

While acting firm can be helpful, attempting to bully bullies is generally counter-productive, several panelists agreed. However, sometimes going on the offensive can be productive. “I have said, ‘Let’s take it outside,’” said Watson. “Men don’t know how to respond to that. Thank God, no one has taken me up on it.”

According to Crotty, sometimes you have to use equal force. The audience member who was confronted by the union negotiator who said she was acting like a “bitch” refused to back down and used a few choice words of her own, the attorney recalled.

Brown also encouraged people to speak up when they see behavior that crosses the line. “As long as that type of behavior is condoned or tolerated, there is no reason to change it,” she said.

Watson said that addressing racist and sexist comments in a humorous or caring way has done a great deal to improve her work environment. But above all: “Nothing beats being good and being right.”