Question: I’m a third-year associate at a midsized firm. The partner I primarily work with is gregarious, very social, and a serious rainmaker (let’s call him “Darren”). He’s loved by all — the clients, attorneys, and staff. He leaves work nearly every day by 4:00 and, from what I’ve learned, heads straight to the bar and parties or hits the golf course and starts knocking them back, often with clients. All of this is fine. However, I’ve learned, albeit through improper channels — okay, I read his emails one day after hours when he forgot to shut down his computer — that on several occasions he told clients that I was at fault for various things the clients complained to him about, such as not getting corporate docs to them on time or forgetting specific changes to a doc that the client requested. In reality, I was not at fault for any of these mistakes.
Fast-forward a few weeks and I’m at a bar with a good friend on a Friday night, and who do I see there? Darren dancing with a woman who was not his wife, 20 years his junior. He sees me, stumbles over and starts shooting the shit. He was wasted out of his mind, and so was the aforementioned younger woman, who was hanging all over him, licking his ear and grabbing his crotch. They were both a complete mess and eventually left together. Of course, it appears that Darren doesn’t remember seeing me at the bar. Worse yet, he continues to blame me for his mistakes.
I otherwise love my firm. Not that it matters, since even if I wanted to leave, no one is hiring in my specialized practice area. I am afraid that if Darren continues to use me as a scapegoat, he’ll ruin my reputation. But if I narc on him to the managing partner, I’m not sure the MP will care about his extracurricular indiscretions. Plus, if I wanted to explain my fears about Darren defaming my reputation with his clients, I would probably have to disclose that I read Darren’s emails.
What the hell do I do?
Answer: Your question conveys a devastating sense of how fricking clueless you are about the foundational rules governing the practice of law in most firms (not that it’s completely your fault — law school fails to prepare us for countless things that commonly arise in practice). With that in mind, I would like to share a few hard truths nobody mentions in law school that are of utmost importance if you want to make a long-term career out of private practice. Once you understand these rules, you will stop having self-created problems like the one you described in your question:
1. Partners cannot tolerate being wrong, nor do they ever admit to having made a mistake. Why should they, when they have associates to blame for everything that goes wrong?
2. Partners — particularly managing partners, whose statuses are conferred upon them by other partners — protect their own. There is zero chance that a managing partner will ever side with an associate against a partner, unless the associate’s complaint about a partner comes with a plausible threat of a cause of action for which there is a high likelihood of success. The power of this rule increases exponentially if the partner in question is both a rainmaker and popular with other members of the firm.
3. In a law firm, adultery is almost never considered to be a punishable offense. Managing partners won’t classify an associate’s report of a partner’s infidelity as whistleblowing. Instead, they’ll see it as gossip.
4. If you’re expecting to encounter fairness, justice, logic, maturity, or principled action and behavior in a law firm, you’re going to be disappointed hundreds of times on a daily basis — and you’ll be completely burned out and exhausted before you reach your fourth year of practice. Righteous indignation is toxic, and if you want to survive in private practice long enough to pay off your loans, you must avoid developing a sense of it.
5. If you want to make partner someday, drop all your expectations about morality and fairness and get your shit done as best you can while keeping your head down and your mouth shut.
Now for your question, which belies numerous examples of your clear misapprehension and/or outright violation of these Law Firm Categorical Imperatives:
Overall, the problem lies with you and your nonsensical sense of entitlement. In no event are you (nor is any other law firm associate) entitled to an exemption from being unfairly blamed for the mistakes of partners, nor may you expect your co-workers and superiors to behave morally and ethically when they’re not in the office.
I mentioned above that adultery isn’t a punishable offense — but you know what is? Snooping around in a partner’s office and reading through his emails. If you’re really worried about your “reputation,” you better quit doing crap like that immediately. Oh, and speaking of reputation, it would behoove you to remember that you have no control over your reputation, since it exists in the minds of other people (over whom you also have no control). Focus on things you can control, i.e. your own actions and performance, and teach yourself to forget about the rest.
If you don’t think this suggested course of action is possible — or worse yet, if you disagree with me — then have fun watching your career implode at some point in the near future. Cheers!
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