Workplace Peace for Lawyers

Peace, as they say, begins with you. And I’ve been thinking a lot about peace and the lack of its close cousins, civility and tolerance, in our country lately, as have many of us.

painted peace sign

Image courtesy

I’ve also been thinking about the incivility of the workplace in general, and in law firms in particular, and how incivility there leads to strife everywhere in both our own lives and in society.

I’ve hesitated to post this on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, though, because to compare the sacrifices made in the civil rights movement by King and many, many others—who suffered being spat upon, beatings, jail time, and death—to those in the current workplace could easily trivialize the epic civil rights struggle.

But I decided to post anyway, because all injustice, large and small, sparks anger, fear and often, the desire for revenge. Which doesn’t exactly promote peace, civility, or tolerance. As Henry Louis Mencken said so famously, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

The Costs of Incivility

The net effect of incivility and verbal violence in the workplace has a huge effect on the peace and wellbeing of not only unhappy lawyers, but everyone else in the profession, those who toil in it who aren’t lawyers, and the ripple effect on all of their families, friends, and neighbors. That is quite a lot of people.

Robert Sutton, who wrote The No Asshole Rule, talks about the productivity effects of asshole behavior. The research is very clear that those who are directly bullied suffer markedly lower productivity and markedly higher absenteeism rates. And that’s disturbing and distressing itself.

Yet the effects of bullying or abusive behavior isn’t confined to the victims. Sutton recounts that in one study, while only 10% of Norwegian workers reported being bullied, the 27% who witnessed the bullying reported that their productivity was negatively affected, too. In another study, 73% of British workers who witnessed bullying (which was roughly 15% of the workforce) experienced increased stress, and 44% reported fearing they would become targets.

Incivility and Everyday Law Firm Life

What does this translate to in the legal workplace? A lot of closed-door conversations about how sucky and awful certain partners are to work for. A lot of time spent scouring job sites and revising resumes rather than working. A lot of stress (suppressed violence, really) taken home and misdirected at spouses and kids, or at the person who cut you off in traffic. A big toll on the immune system. A lot of turnover as attorneys and those who work for them desperately seek an environment that doesn’t impede their ability to just do their work.

There’s plenty of hate and fear in the workplace. Some underlings positively despise their bosses, often understandably, because they are treated with breathtaking callousness. I hear stories about partners in law firms calling associates “dummies,” accusing people who have chronic health conditions of being slackers, and partners making employees (lawyers and support staff) tell them how grateful they are to get Labor Day off.

If you have the time and inclination, you can find stories like these and much worse plastered all over the interwebz. That this kind of conduct is shrugged off as “the way it is” by most lawyers who aren’t its direct victim is a symptom of a gravely ill and unbalanced system. Or they may not like it and think it’s wrong, but they don’t step into the line of fire too often and challenge those bullies.

Real Peace, Not Settling

So what’s the solution? It depends on the kind of peace you’re after. Temporary or lasting? Yes, in the short-term maybe your life is more peaceful if you stop fighting against the massive amounts of injustice that occurs in law firms and other workplaces that lawyers inhabit. (Hierarchical ones, mostly—they are built for perpetuating injustice.)

In his 1956 sermon, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the kind of peace he was pursuing. It was not the “peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.” The kind of peace that was important to MLK was “not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill . . .” He said “peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice.” And he was pretty powerfully specific about what that peace did and did not look like:

1) If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it.

2) If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

3) If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.

4) If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace. So in a passive, non-violent manner, we must revolt against this peace.

Consider the consequences in your life of a career in which you are often treated as a (highly paid) second-class citizen, have to keep your mouth shut when seeing ethical rules violated and co-workers mistreated, adjust to a status quo in which meaningless work always takes precedence over your real values, and in which you are subjecting yourself to economic exploitation.

Is there any peace in that?

Do you treat those around you impatiently, curtly, or worse, because of all the shit rolling downhill?

Do you have less to give to your family, community and world because your energy is constantly sapped by soul-deadening work and assholes?

Is the world missing out on your true talents and gifts because you insist on giving yourself over to highly paid, soul-numbing work you really can’t stand?

What kind of peace do you want in your life? What kind of peace can you start to create?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches attorneys to make changes in their lives that increase their peace. Find out if coaching can add peace to your life by scheduling a discounted, no-obligation sample coaching session. Email to schedule your session today.

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