How to deal with the Selfish Colleague

Many lawyers are generous with their time, their money, and their expertise.

And some are not.

The issue is not just an ideological one, but a practical one.  What do we do when faced with the selfish?

It’s All About Me – Me, Me, Me

If you’ve been in practice for more than a minute, chances are you have seen these people.

They are the partners who expect everything, and give nothing back.  Perhaps you worked 14 hours a day for 6 straight weeks.  Then you ask for a day of leave – DENIED.

They are the lawyers who take credit for your work behind your back.  “I found this great case on point”.

They are the counterparts on the “other side” who miss every deadline, get constant extensions, and then never manage to get their clients to agree to one in return.

In short – these are the practitioners who poison your experience of lawyers, and of the law.

It’s All About Them

What distinguishes these people is that they are all about themselves.  They revolve around their achievements, their goals, their desires, their career, and their prestige.

It’s the associate who takes on only that work which they think is illustrious.

It’s the clerk who only works for the more powerful partner.

It’s the partner who doesn’t let anyone else attend a client meeting, irrespective of who does the work on the file.

Everyone has elements of this, and I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about people for whom the consistent and demonstrable purpose for all of their decisions is to ensure that they come out looking good.

It’s not If, but When

In case you haven’t come across this style of individual yet, I can guarantee you will.  There is no lucky path through your career that will see you avoid these people entirely.  Sure you might be able to mostly avoid them, or minimise your contact with them.

But ultimately you will end up working with, or against, someone like this should your career span your full years.

So my first tip is to embrace the likelihood of these people in your life.

Why?  Because expecting them makes the reality of them less confronting.  You know they are “out there” (much like the truth) and so when faced with a situation you will at least not be taken by surprise.

In case this seems like a depressing outlook on life and humanity, I should stress at this point that my current experience is that people entirely consumed by selfish ambition are less common than their genuine and selfless counterparts.

Don’t Fume like a Futile Child Having a Tantrum

The next thing to remind you is that complaining about things doesn’t work.

I mention it because this is the most common response to irrational selfish behaviour.  We get upset, we go to a lunch and we vent for a good hour about this person or the events in question.

Of course, that can be cathartic, but it doesn’t change the person, and it doesn’t alleviate the situation.

If you expect to achieve nothing, then whinging is probably all you can do.

But if you want to actually effect change, then perhaps a more strategic approach is required.

Assess before Judging

If you are particularly junior, you might not be used to “how things work”.

So before chucking a ballistic hissy fit, you need to evaluate whether you have been genuinely aggrieved, rather than just misunderstood the rules.

One common example is in the context of client meetings.  Let’s say you have done lots of good work, and your partner explains the conclusions to the client rather than letting you do it.

There can be a number of reasons for this, all of which are legitimate.  Yes, on first glance it seems like the partner is taking credit for your work.  But in reality, perhaps this client trusts your partner and not you?  Perhaps your partner knows how to deliver the advice better, even if you both know the same content?  Maybe the partner doesn’t agree with some of your conclusions so have circumspectly removed them from the summary to the client?

These are all perfectly reasonable (in my view) and if you’re going to get all uppity about that, then you’ve got a tough journey ahead.

So – accept the possibility that it’s your own view that is misguided, rather than some dramatic wrong that has been visited upon you.

If You Need to Act, Get your Timing Right

Assuming you have an actual issue to deal with, there is a window of opportunity that exists to bring up these issues appropriately.

It’s not to do it immediately.  Firstly, you will still be annoyed and you’ll come across wrong.  Second, you haven’t had time to process events subconsciously.

It’s also not to wait until your annual performance review (unless it’s soon).  Doing so will, like most things in that review, result in no effective change.

The proper window to address your grievance is after you have processed, but before events have faded.  Normally I would say a day or two later is the likely best bet here, if that’s possible.

Go to the Person, or Their Supervisor?

Generally speaking my view is that you should raise it with the individual.  Firstly, it lets them know that you know (for example – that they took credit for your idea, your work, your letter, or whatever).

Secondly, most supervisors in law firms aren’t good at HR.  So the chances they can actually do anything about your complaint is slim, and you just end up sounding like a whiner.

Remember we’re not talking abuse or something extreme here – we’re talking about selfish people who take without giving.

What Should you Say?

This is not a subject you can dance around.  Be respectful, be polite – don’t be emotional (lawyers don’t do well with emotions).

For my part, on the few occasions this has been needed, I’ve just gone with “I noticed the other day after [event] that you [did the thing I’m unhappy about].  I didn’t really appreciate that because it seemed to me like [explain why it bothered you].”

Chances are that will provoke enough discussion to be getting on with.

Will this solve everything?  Not always.  Sometimes the actions of others are so inbuilt into their characters, that a few conversations are not going to change it.  But you never know – perhaps it wasn’t on purpose, and perhaps the person is more oblivious than they are rude.

Can this process go Wrong?

Yes.  You need to know that having the courage of your convictions in this area could go horribly wrong, despite any wisdom or tact you might have in the process.

You could get fired.

You could get yelled at.

You might annoy someone more senior so that they don’t give you any more work to do.

These, generally speaking, are worst case scenarios and are pretty unlikely provided you don’t go off your nut.  But be prepared – some people are volatile.  By taking up this gauntlet, you are taking a risk.

Over to You

So it’s up to you really.  Are you going to stay silent, and take the path of many before you.  Or will you take a risk and speak up?

Tough call.

Happy lawyering!

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