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Bullying in the legal profession requires a culture fix

Pressure from clients and judges makes bullying in the legal profession a common problem, says Toronto public relations professional Jana Schilder.

“I have witnessed lawyers who have been berated by judges in court, then return to the firm and take out their anger and frustration on associates and articling students — the verbal equivalent of kicking the dog when you get home,” says Schilder, co-founder of the Legal A Team and managing partner of First Principles Communication.

At the same time, lawyers are facing pressure from clients to win while keeping costs low.

“Lawyers who don’t win cases feel the pressure, which is transferred downward in the law firm,” Schilder tells “If they lose a case, lawyers want to just lose in a way that an appeal is still an option.”

The solution is not a simple one, requiring culture change, says Schilder, who has experience leading corporate change at such firms as Nortel, Canadian National Railway and Hydro One.

The culture of the law itself is the root of a bullying culture, she says.

“The legal system is binary, win/lose,” Schilder says. “There is no middle ground. By definition, in order for one person to be right, the other party must be wrong.

“Cut-and-dried in legislation leads to cut-throat in the law firm.”

On the surface, however, the law profession is a fraternity, Schilder notes.

There is decorum, respect, and forced politeness displayed by lawyers if nothing is at stake.”

When they are on opposing ends of a deal, that changes pretty quickly. “It’s the legal equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Law firms place pressure on lawyers to win cases and keep clients happy so they can continue to pay their bills, Schilder says.

The legal profession rewards those lawyers who are bolder than others and get the intended result for clients, she notes. Some lawyers are bolder than others.

“It is well known that many litigators are not ‘nice people,’” Schilder says. “And they’ll tell you that they are not paid to be nice guys. Law firms want lawyers who win cases.”

Internally, the culture of some law firms encourages a sense of rivalry among articling students and associates who want to be hired on or make partner.

“Articling students and associates who are abused are reticent to speak up,” Schilder says, adding there is much rivalry for these positions new professionals are keenly aware just how quickly they can be replaced. “But the stress and pressure must go somewhere.”

Among lawyers, partners, senior partners and named partners, even greater rivalry can exist.

“There is a clear pecking order,” Schilder says. “There is a continual struggle to climb the ladder, to show personal progress. With some lawyers, their self-worth is reflected in their title. So, if you’re not a partner after 20 years, you must not be a very good lawyer. As well, partners feel the pressure to bring in big files that feed the minions.”

The end result of a law firm that breeds a culture of bullying is a workforce dealing with depression, demoralization, anxiety, absence, loss of productivity and even post-traumatic stress.

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