5 Law Firm Categorical Imperatives

Question: I’m a third-year associate at a midsized firm. The partner I primarily work with is gregarious, very social, and a serious rainmaker (let’s call him “Darren”). He’s loved by all — the clients, attorneys, and staff. He leaves work nearly every day by 4:00 and, from what I’ve learned, heads straight to the bar and parties or hits the golf course. All of this is fine. However, I’ve learned, albeit through improper channels — okay, I read his emails one day after hours when he forgot to shut down his computer — that on several occasions he told clients that I was at fault for various things the clients complained to him about, such as not getting corporate docs to them on time or forgetting specific changes to a doc that the client requested. In reality, I was not at fault for any of these mistakes.

Fast-forward a few weeks and I’m at a bar with a good friend on a Friday night, and who do I see there? Darren dancing with a woman who was not his wife. He sees me, stumbles over and starts shooting the shit. Of course, it appears that Darren doesn’t remember seeing me at the bar. Worse yet, he continues to blame me for his mistakes.

I am afraid that if Darren continues to use me as a scapegoat, he’ll ruin my reputation. But if I narc on him to the managing partner, I’m not sure the MP will care about his extracurricular indiscretions. Plus, if I wanted to explain my fears about Darren defaming my reputation with his clients, I would probably have to disclose that I read Darren’s emails.

What the hell do I do?


Answer: Your question conveys a devastating sense of how fricking clueless you are about the foundational rules governing the practice of law in most firms . With that in mind, I would like to share a few hard truths nobody mentions in law school that are of utmost importance if you want to make a long-term career out of private practice. Once you understand these rules, you will stop having self-created problems like the one you described in your question:

1. Partners cannot tolerate being wrong, nor do they ever admit to having made a mistake. Why should they, when they have associates to blame for everything that goes wrong?

2.  Partners — particularly managing partners, whose statuses are conferred upon them by other partners — protect their own. There is zero chance that a managing partner will ever side with an associate against a partner, unless the associate’s complaint about a partner comes with a plausible threat of a cause of action for which there is a high likelihood of success. The power of this rule increases exponentially if the partner in question is both a rainmaker and popular with other members of the firm.

3.  In a law firm, adultery is almost never considered to be a punishable offense. Managing partners won’t classify an associate’s report of a partner’s infidelity as whistleblowing. Instead, they’ll see it as gossip.

4.  If you’re expecting to encounter fairness, justice, logic, maturity, or principled action and behavior in a law firm, you’re going to be disappointed hundreds of times on a daily basis — and you’ll be completely burned out and exhausted before you reach your fourth year of practice. Righteous indignation is toxic, and if you want to survive in private practice long enough to pay off your loans, you must avoid developing a sense of it.

5.  If you want to make partner someday, drop all your expectations about morality and fairness and get your shit done as best you can while keeping your head down and your mouth shut.

Now for your question, which belies numerous examples of your clear misapprehension and/or outright violation of these Law Firm Categorical Imperatives:

Overall, the problem lies with you and your nonsensical sense of entitlement. In no event are you (nor is any other law firm associate) entitled to an exemption from being unfairly blamed for the mistakes of partners, nor may you expect your co-workers and superiors to behave morally and ethically when they’re not in the office.

I mentioned above that adultery isn’t a punishable offense — but you know what is? Snooping around in a partner’s office and reading through his emails. If you’re really worried about your “reputation,” you better quit doing crap like that immediately. Oh, and speaking of reputation, it would behoove you to remember that you have no control over your reputation, since it exists in the minds of other people (over whom you also have no control). Focus on things you can control, i.e. your own actions and performance, and teach yourself to forget about the rest.

If you don’t think this suggested course of action is possible — or worse yet, if you disagree with me — then have fun watching your career implode at some point in the near future. Cheers!

Post image from Shutterstock

  • teo

    From your response, Law Firm, I can tell that you’ve got very little in the way of practical experience. You may know about large law firms but you haven’t got a clue about a partner like Darren. If you did, you would recognize the actual problem: partners see some associates as competitors. This explains their need to have a “relationship partner,” who is clued in whenever a matter involves a high-paying corporate client. It explains their need to receive a cut every time such high-paying corporate client pays anything to anybody at the firm. And it explains, in this case, why “Darren” is throwing our fair haired associate friend under the bus.

    When partners are challenged by clients, the lazy partners who spend hours each week on a golf course or in a bar or both blame associates for the work. High-delivering partners, though, typically address the situation in a reasonable manner (i.e. “Client, lemme look into it and get back to ya”; “Client, you raise a good point that I hadn’t considered”).

    So, I would say to our fair-haired associate friend here two things: you know what you know (it’s irrelevant how you found out); and Darren sucks and is not going to help you in the long-run. If he’s constantly out on the town, drinking it up and sleeping around, his reputation will suffer. People will begin to see him for what he is.

    If I were in your situation, Associate, I would start to network better inside the firm and look for a lateral move. Otherwise, I’d seriously think about hitting the street, getting into other law firms or otherwise doing different legal work. It’s only a matter of time before Darren train-wrecks you.

    • Michelle Beth

      Your comment conveys a devastating sense of how fricking clueless you are about the Laws of Power. It is obvious that you must be living in la la land.

      • Frank D

        And I this is probably one cute babe who’s been there, Cute name, too!

  • http://www.caraccidentlawyerpros.com/ Dianne Weiss

    This is why whoever came up with the adage that “Ignorance is bliss.” is such a genius. First off, you shouldn’t have been reading other people’s emails. Now you have to suffer for knowing the things that this partner is doing against your back, which happens all the time, not only in your firm but in other firms as well. None of these troubles would have haunted you if you are good enough to stay out of his email inbox. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. Learn it as early as now.

  • SK

    Do you think management in other highly skilled professions can get away with this e.g. doctors/engineers/accountants? Why is there such a high rate of depressed lawyers? Why are we universally loathed among all the professions? Why don’t people make investment banker jokes, they deserve a worse reputation than us, particularly after the GFC, and make a lot more money too. Something’s not right.

  • Eurotrash

    Get over it and get on with the programme – and STOP reading your partners’ bloody emails, you whining self-important fool. Navel-gazing and snooping around is not a billable task.

  • Louis

    Enough with this. Bring back the Bottom Rung videos, with that whiny blond woman with the teeth.

  • counsel-or

    wow, what a healthy dose of “here’s a reality sandwich” the commenters have served up.

    original poster, can I try to temper the tone a bit by saying if you’re not happy where you are, you should consider leaving. law firms are peculiar beasts and each run in their own way. (i think it was hemingway that quoted famously about happy families being all alike and unhappy families each being unhappy in their own unique way ?).

    i finally moved firms last year after nearly 5 years under a partner i had eventually gotten fed up with. i won’t say things at my new firm are all sunshine and lollipops (no firm can give you that), but staying in the presence of a toxic personality will be no good for you.

  • southern bitter

    I think Law Firm 10 is spot-on. If you do good work, other partners at the firm and lawyers in your field will know that you do good work. Everyone knows we have to BS clients sometimes to shut them up. I’d be more concerned if Darren or the MP actually thought that you messed things up. There’s nothing you can do but work your butt off and put your name out there when the time is ripe…

    P.S. No one gives a crap if the rainmaker is a drunk or an adulterer because he keeps the lights on. The rainmaker at my firm hasn’t seen his kids in 5 years because of all his social events, probably doesn’t know their names (except the one named after him). It’s business, so get over it. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last.