A Damn Good Lawyer and Her Bully, a Story Years in the Making
I am a two-time NCAA champion softball player. My coach used to yell at me. I persevered. I got better. She raised me up and told me I was greatness in the making. She told me that if I came to the field every single day and gave 100%, I would help our team. I would be the best I was capable of being. That is all she asked of each of us, every single day. We took responsibility for our actions and controlled only the things we could control, letting everything else go. That is how we became champions.
As a first-year attorney at a firm, I tried to apply my championship mentality to the workplace. When the bully threw paper at me from the doorway of my office, I picked them up and was determined to write a better motion, to be a better lawyer. When he put his hand in my face and stopped me mid-sentence in front of my colleagues saying, “Stop, stop talking,” I let it go, because I cannot control his actions and time spent on that was time spent not getting better at being a lawyer. When on a conference call with a client, I dared to speak to the client about the TRO motion I was drafting . . . he rolled back in his chair, flailed his arms around and ran his pointer finger across his throat to silently, yet loudly, admonish me for speaking during the call. After the call, in the calmest and most condescending voice he could muster, he said a phrase I will never forget, “Amanda, sweetheart, darling, you only speak on a conference call when I tell you to speak.” The male colleague in the room was disgusted, but said nothing. He said nothing. Barely in my third year, I was reaching my threshold. He became more hostile when his clients began to prefer to call me, when I started working on my own cases, and when he messed up a case and I refused to take the blame.
The daily aggressions were a thousand tiny paper cuts. One afternoon, he greeted me with a light-hearted, jovial, “What’s up bitch?!”. I thought about rolling with it, but instead of shrugging it off, I said to him, “You will not talk to me like that. I will leave and come back and we will try this again.” I came back and he responded with, “It was just a joke. You know – what’s up homie?” I was tough. They thought I was a perfect match to handle his combativeness. They were wrong.
After more than four long years of this treatment, I had had enough. By then, I had started to work on my own cases, and I realized I was a damn good lawyer and he was jackass. My repeated complaints fell on deaf ears or resulted in meaningless conferences where the bully apologized and got a slap on the wrist. Then he behaved for a couple more months, but he was a bully and he was not going to change. Despite anger management classes and many half-hearted attempts by the powers-that-be to reign him in, he was never going to change.
When I left to go out on my own, the firm asked me why I was leaving and I told them to pursue different clients, make more money, and control my life. All true statements. I did not tell them that after working for the bully, I could not imagine being partners with attorneys that kept someone like that as their partner. Yes, they were great lawyers who taught me a lot. But they messed up when they put up with him. I probably would have stayed for many more years, but their refusal to put integrity above their bottom line was no longer something that could be overlooked.
After the Lawyers Club July 2016 Luncheon on Sexual Harassment and Bullying, I was inspired to put “ideas into action.” After nearly 3 years, I scheduled a meeting with the managing partners of my old firm and told them a more complete version of why I left. I thought that if I could help one other woman avoid what I went through, it could make a difference–and it was a difficult conversation, to say the least. I practiced my first few lines, much in the way you would practice for oral argument at a hearing. At first, they seemed to make excuses by stating that they removed the bully. Eventually, they acknowledged that it took them four years to let him go. In fact, they had complaints about him before I even arrived to the firm. In that moment at the table, I realized that these lawyers sincerely lack the consciousness and tools to act differently. I can only hope that, they have a greater awareness and that all of this will spare some new “tough” attorney years of tiny paper cuts.
What I did not anticipate from the conversation with my former colleagues was the gift I gave to myself by standing up and speaking out. There is a confidence and power I have gained from running my own successful practice for three years that laid the groundwork for having that conversation. I finally forgave myself for not speaking up earlier, and for not fighting back while I was at the firm. The truth is, I was not ready at that moment in time. I did the best I could at that moment, by stopping the bleeding and focusing all my energy on my new firm.
Be kind to yourself when you are being bullied or harassed. You are doing the best you can. Just know that at some point in the future the opportunity will arise for you to speak out for yourself or someone else, to stand up for yourself or someone else, and to take action. Maybe that time will be next month, or years from now, but the time will come and you will be ready.
Amanda Allen is the managing attorney at Aguirre Allen Law, APC where she practice business, real estate, and craft beer law and she is the founder of Enrich, a co-working community for lawyers where they focus on providing solo and small firm lawyers the support they need to achieve success personally, professionally, and financially. #lawyerhardlivewell