The Agony Aunt tackles the injustice of bullying

Those of you who read the Agony Aunt regularly each week will have by now become accustomed to the occasional joke in my jottings – a funny one-liner here, and a clever quip there – to help bring a more serious issue to life. Well this week you may be sorry (or glad …) to hear that this week’s Agony Aunt is strictly joke-free. Because this week’s question – “Are you being bullied at work?” – is sadly a very serious and very real issue for many people.

Statistics show that one in four lawyers have suffered some form of bullying in the last five years. The lawyers who suffer most are women, trainees and people who have been qualified for five years or less, along with lawyers from ethnic minorities, and lawyers who are gay or bisexual. So much for diversity and inclusion …

There are many occasions when it is possible to look at other professions –banking, insurance or politics for example – and say lawyers are no worse. But bullying at work is not one of these occasions. The truth is the legal profession is the most serious, serial offender – fuelled by its hierarchical traditions, its adversarial systems and the personality type of the typical lawyer. I would normally add a joke here, about most lawyers not being particularly well known for fading into the wallpaper, or only having one glass of wine at office parties, or never being wrong or out done. But, like I said, bullying is no joke.

To understand both bullying and the kind of person who bullies others in the office, it is worth looking at the dictionary definition. The word ‘bully’ means ‘a person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker’. Sound familiar? The dictionary lists other interchangeable words and phrases; persecute, oppress, tyrannize, torment, browbeat, intimidate, coerce, strong-arm, subjugate, domineer; push around/about and play the heavy with’. Anyone spring to mind?

There are two types of bullying lawyers, with both men and women fitting the profiles. The “serial bully” selects one “victim” in the office and bullies them until they leave, before moving on to bully someone else, apparently at random. The “Aggregate bully” bullies everyone around them. Why do they do it? Experts say a perceived threat, personality differences, or simple but sinister desire to wield power is what drives people to treat others in this way.

As an Agony Aunt, I deal with human emotions, but I also use raw data too, to show that the issues we are exploring are based on reality. Here’s the data on bullying.

  • Of the 25% of lawyers who report being bullied in the last 5 years, 75% of them said the bullying was carried out by senior colleagues
  • 70% of lawyers say they have been bullied for a year or more
  • Bullies in the legal sector tend to be Aggregate bullies, with over 75% of bullying cases relating to groups of lawyers or even whole departments.

The bullying – although I think words like persecution and tyranny are far more descriptive of the impact, given so many of us link bullying to childhood in a way that can almost be forgiven because the bully is still learning and growing up at this stage in their life – can take many forms;

  • unfair and public criticism
  • always threatening to sack people
  • focusing on someone’s sexuality or race
  • not allowing holidays or time off
  • overloading someone with work
  • setting unrealistic targets
  • not giving any praise.

So, with 25% of lawyers experiencing this kind of treatment in the last five years, working in this environment every day, it is hardly surprising to read headlines like Report claims lawyers have the worst mental health of all professionals”

This recent report – written by Dr Rebecca Michalak of the University of Queensland – reveals lawyers have “significantly lower levels of psychological and psychosomatic health well-being” compared with other professionals. The knock-on effect of bullying is lawyers becoming isolated and over-worked. And, as night follows day, the report says lawyers in private practice have the “highest levels of alcohol and nicotine” abuse compared to people in other professions.

The continuous strain leads to mental and nervous breakdowns, fear of social situations, depression, physical illnesses and suicide. Even the strongest character can crumble as a result of unrelenting criticism and harassment, day after day. Bullying can leave talented lawyers and decent people with their abilities, self-confidence and self respect in tatters. For many bullied lawyers, the only way to end the persecution is to leave the firm, which can then set back their careers. We should all be ashamed that far too often the legal profession allows the victim to suffer and then suffer again, rather than tackling the individual and the bullying culture by developing policies and guidance to wipe out bullying in the workplace, or increasing the support for the most vulnerable; women, trainees, gay lawyers etc.

By visibly tackling bullying in the legal sector, more lawyers will feel that they can come forward and report the harassment they are experiencing, and name those responsible. And we all know how weak bullies really are. There are a number of things you can do, to take control and to take action;

  • remember you are a talented, highly qualified lawyer and be proud of what you have achieved in your career so far
  • get strength from the love and support of your family and friends
  • make work just one element of your life, with your hobbies, friends and family taking equal if not higher billing
  • tell yourself the bully has a problem, not you. Work out what their problem is; perceived threat, personality differences, a desire to wield power
  • document the bullying. Get your evidence; the bullying behavior, dates, times, who was involved, emails etc
  • report the bullying through the proper channels
  • tell the bully to stop, tell them what impact they are having on you and your work, and tell them you have reported their bullying to senior people at the firm.

This one heart-breaking but ultimately heart-warming email that I was sent this week says it all – and serves as a clear reminder to any law firm or chambers that still tolerates bullying as some form of strength or right of passage. Here is this week’s story and and insight. As ever, dealt with anonymously.

“I understand that law firms are here to serve their clients, and that requires a huge amount of dedication from everyone within the firm. But I urge any new lawyer coming in to the profession to learn, very quickly, that they work for a firm, not individuals. At first, when I was given more and more work to do, I felt quite excited .. to have this challenge to prove myself, and to see that the firm was growing. But when the work load just kept on growing, and growing, and the excitement turned to sheer exhaustion, I started to see this flow of work from my manager to me not as an act of delegation, but quiet aggression. I can still see the slight smile on his face, each time he handed more work over to me, with insincere questions about hoping this wouldn’t keep me at the office ‘too long’. Not once was I thanked for the effort I put in, and the sacrifices I made to get this work done. I often worked late into the night, knowing my husband and my children were yet again having dinner without me, and then having story-time without me. I’d get text messages from my husband late at night asking was I finished yet? And I’d reply ‘not quite’ knowing full well I still had hours of work on my desk. I justified things by looking around me and seeing colleagues doing very similar hours, and wanting to get on at the firm, for the sake of my career and my family. But I was slowly being beaten down, by a senior colleague who clearly enjoyed piling more and more work on to people, knowing what the result would be. I’ve seen colleagues go from vibrant and brilliant lawyers into broken shells. I’ve seen lawyers who enjoyed a drink after work turn into depressed alcoholics. I’ve seen marriages collapse. But not because of the law firm I joined – because of the bully I worked with. They are different, and it was only when he tried to stop me taking a day off work to go to my mother’s funeral that I realised this was bullying, and always had been. I went to my mother’s funeral despite not having the ok to do so. It’s vitally important when you are being bullied to remember family and friends, to find that moment to stand up for yourself, and to expose the bully.”

Consulant A, London

If you are being bullied at work, and would like to talk to an experienced team of people who can help you, here are a few links and contacts;

LawCare – charity supported by The Law Society and The Bar Council – helps lawyers tackle workplace bullying. 0800 279 6888. If your health has suffered as a result of the bullying contact your GP. Or you can speak to the National Bullying Helpline on 0845 22 55 787.

If you would like to share your stories and insights into bullying at work with the Agony Aunt, please get in touch via the Contact page on this site. All names and details will be treated anonymously, with care.

Next week’s question: “What are the best steps to take when facing redundancy?”