Adventures in Boundary-Setting


Great news.  I’ve figured out the secret to avoiding psychological self-implosion and irreparable burnout in the hellish world of BigLaw.

Unfortunately, my combination of passive-aggressiveness and shifting sense of self-worth won’t allow me to actually implement any meaningful changes with any withstanding resolve, so I might as well share my epiphany.

The lightning bolt hit me after speaking with one of my mentors (yes, it is possible for me to appreciate a fellow female lawyer).  She called me to report on life at her new place of employ. A few months back, my idiotic firm made her one of our layoff casualties.  The value she added to every case she touched, not to mention the fact that our Chicago litigation department now has ZERO competent female partners, made the firm’s actions inexplicable.

Our friendship was established when I became a fixture on an equity partner’s team for whom she did the bulk of the work. After observing my neurotically fastidious work product and priggish email responses, she sensed in me a kindred perfectionist paranoiac, and the rest was history.

During her call, she and I commiserated over the brutal mental and verbal beatings to which we’d supplicated while working together, so our conversation inevitably turned to whether there are any notable assholes at her new place. Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—there are.  And the biggest one falls into the category most dangerous to a lawyer’s mental wellbeing: The Unavoidable Asshole.

She explained how he can’t be avoided because he’s very high up on the food chain and has added her to his team on several valuable cases.  After she finished describing her first experience of getting undeservedly browbeaten by him (in a semi-public forum, no less, since he chose to act on his prick impulses in the doorway to her office), my heart started to sink.

After her layoff, I set about fervently hoping that there would be a silver lining. I aspired for her to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes into an even better position at a utopian firm.  What she was saying didn’t bode well for my fantasies, and I heard the familiar sound of hope shattering.

I was caught completely by surprise, however, when, instead of launching into a series of wretched abuse stories, she said brightly, “But it seems like it’s going to be fine because after the second instance of asshole behavior, I told him that he can’t treat me like that anymore.”

Total silence. I couldn’t speak. I needed to process this strange and alien concept.

So she stood up for herself?  She set…a boundary? But that’s what people do who have jobs where they aren’t treated as expendable and replaceable. That’s only what happens in fantastic, far-off lands where bosses recognize that you’re a human and actually treat you as such.

Understanding my befuddlement, she continued to explain. The strains of a string symphony practically crescendo-ing behind her voice.

“I had a lot of time to decompress after being laid off. I realized that our fanatical risk-aversion and perfect resume obsessions ended up obscuring the truth. When you strip away all that bullshit, this is just a job. And being a lawyer is a job I happen to be very good at doing.  So I’m not going to allow myself to be treated like shit out of fear that they’ll just replace me with someone who is willing to suffer in silence. I know that my work product isn’t 100% replaceable, and if I lose my job for setting boundaries and asking to be treated like a human being, then I will just pick up and keep going. Instead of focusing on myself as replaceable, I’m going to focus on the fact that these firms are replaceable.”

I scrawled down her wisdom on a legal pad next to the phone: “Start acting like they are replaceable, instead of the other way around. Set boundaries accordingly.”

It sounded so sharply simple, it might as well have been a Japanese haiku.

My behavior since the beginning of BigLaw has been influenced by the complete opposite of this wisdom. And it has led to most of the intolerability of my life as an associate. Seriously, I can handle pressure and long hours. But what I suddenly realized I can’t handle is pressure and long hours combined with being treated like absolute shit by a handful of pricks. This new philosophy seems like a pretty decent way to decrease the latter.

Almost immediately, BigLaw (predictably) gave me an opportunity to test out my new theory.

The ink had barely dried on my legal pad when a psychotic email from a particularly nasty partner appeared in my inbox.  He demanded to know why he hadn’t received a case status summary he’d recently assigned. The fact that his original tasking email set a deadline of the beginning of next week didn’t deter him from e-screaming at me.

“You are putting every single one of my client relationships at risk by messing with my work flow, and that’s unacceptable. DROP whatever it is that you might be doing, and get that summary to me BY THE END OF THE DAY.”

The old, unenlightened LF10 would have set aside the (time-sensitive) project she was working on in order to complete his summary. Then she would have stayed in the office all night long finishing up what she had dropped to respond to the unnecessary fire drill.

But that was the LF10 of 15 minutes ago. Taking a deep breath, I crafted my best balls-y, boundary-setting response. I tried to ignore the tachycardia as I explained that he hadn’t received the summary from me yet because the deadline that he had communicated was still several days from now. I told him that I couldn’t finish the summary by the end of the day because of another time-sensitive project I needed to complete, but I would complete his summary immediately thereafter—and he would still receive it well in advance of his original due date. Just to be safe, I concluded by copying the relevant deadline-related portion of his original tasking email.

I hit “send,” picked at my cuticles and waited. Four minutes and one bloody finger later, he replied.

“Irrelevant responses like these are a complete waste of my time. Anything other than asking a specific question about an assignment or turning in completed work product requires me to unnecessarily open, read, and hit ‘delete.’ My time is too important and scarce to deal with distractions.”

Voila. My moment of Zen.

I suppose that when all is said and done, the conversation with my mentor was like a pharmaceutical ad. Although it promised a cure, it still includes a host of possible side effects. And sending that email caused so much nausea, dry mouth, increased sweating, dizziness, and suicidal thoughts and/or behavior, that I think I’ll check with a healthcare provider before deciding if boundary-setting will ever again be right for me.

Law Firm 10 may lack the dazzling, magnetic charisma of a girl from the hottest sorority in school, but she (arguably) makes up for that with her wit, humor, and low-maintenance-ness. Read more from Law Firm 10.

37 Comments

  1. KateLaw

    August 12, 2009 at 4:48 am

    Poor girl.  I can’t imagine that kind of work environment.  I really respect her for at least Trying to stand up for herself.

  2. BL1Y

    August 12, 2009 at 5:00 am

    Copying the previous e-mail with the original deadline is exactly the type of thing that happens when intellectual social retards try to play tough.  You think you’re winning the fight by showing the boss he’s being unfair or a hypocrite, but all you’re doing is making yourself look whiny and passive-aggressive.  Maybe it’s instances like this that make you think you have a 10 wit and intellect (look how you outsmarted a partner!) but they really just show you have a 4 personality.  PS: Ask any of the thousands of laid of lawyers and staff just how replaceable their firm was.

  3. TNG

    August 12, 2009 at 6:14 am

    You call her an “intellectual social retard” because she included the original email?  That is BS.  When dealing with an asshole, like this partner, of course she should include the original, else he’ll just come back and deny that he ever said the previous things.
    Look, what is LawFirm10’s end game here?  To make partner?  Obviously if the partner’s are total assholes to her now, they don’t respect her…so it is not going to matter how hard she works or how good her work is…she can kiss ass all she wants and not set boundaries…at the end of the day she is not going to have any dignity left…the firm is not going to respect her anyway…and she will never make partner.
    She’ll be gently shown the door when she is a 6th or 7th year associate without her dignity intact.  All I am saying is she is not a “retard” for pointing out to the asshole that, well, she not going to let him be an asshole just because he is a partner.  At some point, she has to defend herself.

  4. BL1Y

    August 12, 2009 at 6:25 am

    It doesn’t matter what the partner said the deadline was originally.  He wants it done sooner now, and whining that he said he didn’t need it until later isn’t going to get her anywhere.  Deadlines can change.  Trying to make your boss look like an asshole (even just to the boss himself) is a pretty dumb move.

  5. Craig

    August 12, 2009 at 6:40 am

    Asshole partners/people only respect people who act and think like them.  If you want an asshole to respect you, you have to act like an asshole to them too. I think LF10 took a step in the right direction with that email.

  6. canadouche

    August 12, 2009 at 6:43 am

    actually, that IS the secret to surviving big law.  until you actually make the decision and buy in as a partner you have to treat it as a place that you can walk away from if it becomes unreasonable.  we have have our own definitions of what that is, but you need to find it and live by it.

  7. canadouche

    August 12, 2009 at 6:44 am

    ….though i agree she did not need to include the original email from partner.  that is just rubbing his face in it and was bad judgment.  when pushing back, always leave room for the other side to save face and exit, otherwise you get the dog in a corner response.

  8. Craig

    August 12, 2009 at 6:50 am

    I think it was smart to include the original email.  You can’t assume the partner even remembers the original deadline he put on it.  Showing him the original email with the due date compared to the crazy email he just sent puts the evidence that he is a massive asshole right in front of his face.  That way, the partner can’t rationalize away how much of a dick he is. The only thing he can do is pretend to have better things to do.

  9. BL1Y

    August 12, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Craig, I think canadouche is right that you need to leave him a way out to save face.  Otherwise he’ll get defensive and become a bigger asshole.  She could have asked if it was necessary to complete the project immediately, or if the original deadline of MM/DD would still work.  Much less douchy than copying the e-mail.

  10. BL1Y

    August 12, 2009 at 7:00 am

    She’s trying to workout a livable work environment, not put the partner on trial for being an asshole.  Too many people think a victory is a victory is a victory and forget that different victories have different results.  While you may win in proving that your boss is an asshole, you’ll lose in improving your life at the office.  You have to consider just how important it is to you that you get the little ego boost that comes from proving that the partner was wrong.

  11. Craig

    August 12, 2009 at 7:07 am

    BL1Y, I’m disagreeing with your premise that LF10 will be treated worse by writing that email.  I think she will garner more respect by acting and saying what she really wants to say, obviously to a point.  If you constantly say and do what you think other people want to hear, it won’t get you very far, especially in Law.  A partner wants someone on his side who will fight. Who is not a push over.  LF10 didn’t tell the partner to go fuck himself. She told him he will get his project before the original due date and after she takes care of another project she is working on. Simple.

  12. BL1Y

    August 12, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Craig: I don’t think we disagree about the content of her e-mail.  I’ve told partners before that I just wouldn’t have time to work on something and there wasn’t any trouble.  The problem with LF10 is the way she did it.  Copying the original e-mail was unnecessary and passive-aggressive. You read back someone’s words to them when you’re impeaching them on cross-examination, not when you’re asking them to cut you some slack.

  13. KateLaw

    August 12, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Now that I think about it (after reading everyone’s comments), it is rather whiny and passive aggressive behavior.  However, it’s a fairly typical first step for alot of females in standing up for themselves in a professional setting.  We’re generally raised to be passive and complacent so when it comes down to “setting boundaries” and standing up for ourselves, it isn’t always clearly thought out or executed.  If it had been me, I would have just referenced the original email’s deadline and added it as an attachment -give them the option to check it out if they don’t believe you.  However, assertiveness-by-email will never earn you the same kind of respect as, say, speaking up for yourself confidently in person.  There’s more control over the situation and less of a chance for irreparable damage to the working relationship since you can immediately gauge your superior’s reaction and act accordingly.  But then again, you may never have that face-to-face opportunity and you’re stuck in your office hating life and yourself.

  14. Anon22

    August 12, 2009 at 10:05 am

    kool love it! this gave me a fun thing to read at work.

  15. BL1Y

    August 12, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Kate: The most common way I see women standing up for themselves here is berating men who stand up for themselves and trying to get them to engage in the same weak-willed behavior.  For instance my female peers will try to convince me it’s not okay to leave at 5:30 (end of regular business hours) even when I have either literally nothing to work on, or something that is long-term and non-urgent.  Why?  Because they’re afraid of standing up for themselves and it’s easier to live that way if everyone else is conforming to the same behavior.

  16. LL10

    August 12, 2009 at 11:31 am

    He answered in typical male manner.  “My time is sooo valuable”.  Don’t step up to the plate Mr.  His best defense is an offense.  You made your point lady lawyer so move on and act as nothing went down.  It will happen again, he is just that type of guy.  Next time your skin will be a little thicker and let it pass and then the next time speak up.  Have fun and play, but be on top of your job.

  17. KateLaw

    August 12, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Im sorry you have to deal with women/people like that.  Im not familiar with that type of reaction from anyone so I really can’t comment.  I do think that it would make for a pretty annoying work environment.

  18. BL1Y

    August 12, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Woah!  Anyone else notice that the picture says “Adventures IN LF10”???  HOT!

  19. Alma Federer

    August 12, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    You men are always looking for an “in” with good looking smart and personable women like LF10 and me.  I am also struggling trying to make sense of the boundaries I should set for men in the work and personal environment.  I am told that I must keep men from taking advantage of me, as I was engaged to be engaged in college, and again in law school with a professor of conflict of laws.  I was very proper, and did not take any classes with him, yet he always wanted me to sleep with him.  I did not do this either.  Now, like LF10 and her friend, we face the reality of men who are “ass***oles” but who provide some respite from the vaguaries of societal isolation.  I would ask that men refrain from giving us cheap lines but instead respect us for our minds, not our bodies.  I have not seen LF10, but the responses from the group of men show they are trying to impress her with their wit and charm (which I don’t see here much of).  Yes, we good looking professional women need to stick together to deal with our issues in a constructive manner.

  20. Alma Federer

    August 12, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Oh, and BL1Y, you are again crass and disgusting.  Boys like you will always try to get “in” us gals, but we are wise to those cheap lines, like “gee, I left my keys at the party, can I stay over?” or…..”my cousin’s family is crashing at my condo, can I sleep over here with you tonite?” Those are sad lines, and I hear them all the time. But I am wise to them, and you guys won’t get anywhere with stupid comeons like that.  Beautiful women are beautiful for a reason.  We take care of ourselves and don’t let ourselves go for dunces that want to “get in” us, like BL1Y.  He is disgusting!

  21. Anon Female

    August 12, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Bl1Y, come on really??

  22. Guano Dubango

    August 13, 2009 at 2:29 am

    Thank you BL1Y.  I also wish to get “in” twith LF10.  I am Guano Dubango, I have an LLM degree from a US law school and am looking for someone like LF10.
    If LF10 is TRULY as attractive as she claims, I am interested in marriage, and in her bearing my children.  Eventually, we can return to my home country, Ghana, where we can live in the hill country.
    LF10, please post a picture on this web-site so that I can see if you are truly attractive.  I do not want to waste my time if you are not beautiful. 
    We have enough women who look like Water-Buffalo at home.  That is why I came here to the USA.  To earn money and find a woman lawyer who will make money for us to return to the hill country in my homeland.

  23. KateLaw

    August 13, 2009 at 5:54 am

    I don’t know if Guano means to be as funny as he is, but I crack up every time he writes about his ideal woman (smart and beautiful with high earning potential) and returning to the hill country -the land of the Ghana women who look like water buffalo.

  24. BL1Y

    August 13, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Kate: Any idea what sort of degree Guano has, and what country he earned it in?

  25. KateLaw

    August 13, 2009 at 11:06 am

    It’s an LLM earned in America! Come on BL1Y, everyone knows that one!  How about why he came to America in the first place?  Oh yes, hot lawyer non-buffalo fertile wife.. ha

  26. BL1Y

    August 13, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Kate: Thanks for not being Alma.

  27. Alma Federer

    August 13, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Kate means well.  Don’t paint all women bad, just because they are not interested in sleeping with you, BL1Y.  We have to maintain our dignity, which would be forfeited should we find you slobbering all over us after you’ve had your way.

  28. Guano Dubango

    August 14, 2009 at 3:34 am

    Why is BL1Y moving in on KateLaw.  She is interested in me, BL1Y and you are taking her away from me?  KateLaw, do you want to consider me and coming home to visit my country?  You must be very pretty, and able to bear me children.

  29. KateLaw

    August 14, 2009 at 4:28 am

    Guano, I thought I made it clear when I said that I was involved with someone that I am not interested in bearing your 3 children and moving back to the hill country in Ghana.  While I am sure Ghana is a lovely place, it’s just not in the cards for me.  However, I am sure that if you get out there (and I mean out in the Real world and not in the Atty blog comment world), you will find all that you desire.  I would recommend a bit of small talk, though.  Most women (and especially those of the caliber you seek) may find the immediate talk of bearing children and moving across the world to where the water buffalo roam a bit much for the first date (and probably the first ten dates).

  30. Guano Dubango

    August 14, 2009 at 5:32 am

    A thousand pardons, Katelaw.  I did not see you mention of you already be engaged to other man.  I cannot take you away from another man without contract.  For you to become my wife, your man must agree to financial settlement, and at this time, I can only afford $850, and can only pay him after you pass inspection by my Aunt Oouna, who will be coming to visit me here inl October.

  31. KateLaw

    August 14, 2009 at 5:38 am

    haha, wow.

  32. Anonymous

    August 14, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Go for it KateLaw!  $850 could be put to good use, and I understand the hill country is beautiful this time of year.  After you bear him a few kids, you can always return to the states. What have you got to lose?

  33. Georgie

    August 17, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Kate, the guys are all lovin’ you!!

  34. Robert Smith

    August 17, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Having made partner in a big firm eons ago (when brick cell phones were new), my take is different. When receiving an email like that, calmly email that you CAN’T complete all current assignments in the available time: ask Mr Ahole to speak to Mr. Yhole and work it out: till then you have to give prededence to the Yhole assignment on the desk and “I’ll start yours on ___.” Acting like Mr. Spock (a character in a 1960’s tv series that acted logically all the time) works every time. Every other partner will take your side. Even Ahole will see that what you did was right.  Do NOT burn yourself out on all nighters: (that is for associates that will not make partner). Nights, weekends, holidays yes, but not all nighters. If you DO stay up really late, call the client on some pretext and leave a message, so they marvel at your work ethic and want you on all deals.

  35. BL5Y

    August 17, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    I set boundaries.  I told the partner he couldn’t treat me that way.  He proved me wrong, oh so wrong.  He went on a vendetta spreading rumors about my alleged lack of judgment, inability to work in teams, and opininated nature.  He spread them to every partner with whom I DON’T work so there was no one to stand up for me.  Before I knew it my evaluations were full of comments about my awful personality and that my failure to remedy the situation would result in termination despite my stellar work product.  No one would believe I had no way to fix it.  And now I’m about to be fired during a sh*t economy.  I am SO glad I set boundaries.  Remind me to do that again, it was a great idea.

  36. exBL3Y

    August 20, 2009 at 3:31 am

    “It sounded so sharply simple, it might as well have been a Japanese haiku.”
    Hands down the best line I’ve read on a law blog.

  37. pinkshoelawyer.blogspot.com

    August 28, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    this tactic proves successful only if, in fact, you don’t give a shit if you get canned.

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