Restoring Civility to Law Firm Relationships: Effectively Managing Criticism
Travis County Women Lawyers’ Association
“Being hurt by anger and criticism is not gender-specific. Secretary of defense nominee Bobby Ray Inman withdrew his nomination because he did not want to deal with what he regarded as extreme and unfair attacks. This sparked a new round of criticism for him being to ‘thin-skinned,’ In this connection, columnist Meg Greenfield wrote that ‘thin skin is the only kind of skin human beings come with.’"
Countless women attorneys have described to me their ongoing concerns about being harshly criticized by angry partners - not necessarily men - in their firms. Some women were dressed down, loudly and harshly, in front of other lawyers in the firm. When I suggest that they respond by setting limits, they insist that any statement of protest will be taken as confirmation that they’re “not tough enough” to be successful in the firm. Not surprisingly, many of these women conclude that the only way to protect themselves from verbal assault is to change professions.
This belief creates a lose-lose situation for any attorney who accepts it. If you tolerate verbal abuse, it will undermine your confidence and distract you from the work to which your gifts, passion and training have led you. Tolerating this kind of criticism doesn’t demonstrate your toughness; rather, it signals that you are afraid of responding, leading your critic to believe that s/he can treat you like that again.
As we all know, abusive criticism is ineffective. Management literature abounds with evidence that recognition of success encourages more success and that feelings of powerlessness and humiliation interfere with productivity.
The fact is, standing up for yourself in the face of unwarranted or inappropriately harsh criticism is a sign that you are “tough enough.” My own experience and conversations with successful women lawyers suggests that a carefully planned approach to this situation can be extremely effective.
You can learn to handle your “critics” with the same kind of skill that makes you successful in advocating for your clients. “Emotionally intelligent” responses to verbal assaults can increase the probability of your success in your firm, and in legal practice in general. Here are some suggestions about how to respond to harsh, inappropriate, or ad hominem criticism:
1. FEELING HURT IS NOT A SIGN OF YOUR FAILURE
Try to take criticism less personally. That does not mean it shouldn’t hurt. Everyone feels humiliated when she’s treated disrespectfully. But don’t attribute this kind of criticism to your own failure. Even if you made a mistake, no one deserves to be treated unjustly.
Often, the attorneys who speak in a demeaning manner may not even be aware of their style or its impact. If you hear the criticism as malicious, you’ll feel hamstrung. Consider the possibility that what you’re hearing is the uncontrolled voice of an overworked and stressed partner who has no idea how he comes across. Above all, don’t buy into the idea that being hurt means you’re not “tough enough” or a good-enough lawyer. All it means is that you’re human.
2. WAIT FOR YOUR CRITIC TO COOL DOWN
Let the person criticizing you cool down before you respond. Communicate your willingness to address substantive issues, but use your “social radar” to gauge the other person’s readiness to resolve the conflict. Sometimes the best you can say is, “I can see you’re upset. Let’s meet tomorrow to discuss this.”
3. RESPOND TO THE COMPLAINT
Distinguish between the “what” and the “how” of the criticism. If the complaint has merit, take appropriate responsibility. But don’t be self-denigrating. Communicate your genuine regret about any mistakes you made - but keep them in perspective.
It’s also important to communicate your desire to learn and your need for training and mentoring. Lawyers under pressure can have very unrealistic expectations of less experienced attorneys. All you can do is your best - acknowledge your limitations, and seek information and guidance from mentors. You’re less likely to make egregious errors this way.
4. RESPOND TO HOW THE COMPLAINT WAS EXPRESSED
The “how” refers to the manner in which the criticism is delivered. If the tone or working is inappropriate or disrespectful - regardless of its validity - then you need to address this.
First, try to assess your critic’s mood and receptive- ness. Be sure you’re calm enough to show a willingness to work things out. Plan a response that is diplomatic and tactful. Try to reduce defensiveness with a softened “start up” - thank the other person for his willingness to discuss the issue. It’s important to state your concerns in neutral language and with a non-argumentative tone.
You might say something like, “I know you were really upset about… and I can understand that. I’m sure you didn’t intend to be hurtful, but I wonder if you realize how demoralizing it can be to be on the receiving end of your criticism when you’re that upset. I’d really like us to maintain a good working relation- ship. Can we talk about other ways we can handle problems when they come up?”
In my experience, this kind of response usually meets with some embarrassment and regret. Move on to something else quickly enough to allow your “critic” to save face. If you’ve received some kind of apology, and most likely you will, then you’ve created a more respectful and equitable relationship.
If you’re “critic” reacts defensively, then it’s probably time to talk to people in the firm with whom you’ve forged alliances. If they justify his behavior and criticize your reaction, you may want to consider working elsewhere. Most likely, other lawyers will want to support you. But don’t expect them to be openly critical of their colleagues. They’ll probably prefer to handle things behind the scenes.
5. BE OPTIMISTIC AND CONFIDENT
It’s easiest to practice self-advocacy when you’re optimistic and self-confident. By optimism, I mean that you’re able to generate possible solutions to a problem, rather than resigning yourself to helplessness. Colleagues, mentors and coaches can help you generate solutions when you’re having difficulty doing so on your own.
Self-confidence comes from a clear recognition of your talents, gifts and skills. Make a list of all the assets you bring to your firm and your profession and update this regularly. If you’re a young associate this might be difficult. A coach can help you accomplish this.
Your confidence will increase each time you successfully handle conflict. Avoidance, on the other hand, is not confidence-building. Doing something difficult and anxiety-producing strengthens your ability to handle tough situations - with your cases or with your colleagues.