I’m Watching a Partner Deteriorate


QI work in a small, four-attorney firm. I have been with this firm for 18 months and was with my prior firm for two years. I have generally enjoyed working here, but recently the senior (and only) partner suffered a subdural hematoma, which put him out of the office for a few weeks. He is 65 years old.

We have managed to get by and he has been able to offer some guidance on the cases assigned to me. However, ever since his injury, he has acted slightly more erratically and is obviously suffering from some memory loss and difficulty concentrating. Despite these issues, he has assured our clients and us that he is fully functional and that his mind is unaffected.

Obviously, I’m not convinced. In fact, I think his condition is negatively affecting his work. I feel a great deal of loyalty to him because he was understanding and patient with me as I worked out a mental health issue during my first year, but I am concerned about the future of the firm, and more importantly, my job.

Additionally, I was hired to replace three attorneys who left the firm because of disagreements with this partner. After leaving, the partner discovered that one of these attorneys was padding his hours and subsequently had him disbarred, criminally charged, and forced him to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution. While I haven’t padded my hours, I have made quite a few mistakes since I started here (all of which he is aware of and we have dealt with) and I’m worried that he may try to come after me. Any ideas?

AQuick disclosure here: I have a soft spot for your boss because my dad went through something like this not so long ago and I watched his sharp, witty, and lawyerly mind deteriorate rapidly. It was excruciating to watch, most of the time helplessly.

Hell, I have a soft spot for anyone with a brain injury (or any disability) trying to continue on with the hard work of running a law firm. Compassion even, and I sense you actually have some too.

It’s a gut issue. Intuition. Do what you feel is best in your gut. That means, however, that you actually listen to your gut. And, unless there are other things happening here that are not revealed in your letter, my hunch is your gut is telling you to stick it out and see what you can do, see what happens. But that also means you may have a choice to do something ordinary or to do something extraordinary. Ordinary would be to put your head down and move on like nothing’s different, like the partner can handle it, the firm’s in good hands, and no clients will be affected. Ordinary would also mean packing things up and leaving, jumping ship. Ordinary may be what most people in your shoes would do.

But extraordinary would be to hit it head on. Figuring out how to talk to the the partner—or to the partner’s spouse if he has one—to air your concerns and to ask what help he may need. Possibly standing up to the partner and his reluctance to acknowledge that a brain injury is affecting his work and clients. I’m not saying confrontational, just honest, straightforward, this is what you see and this is what you are committed to do to help, if he’s even open to it. To use a drippy but apt analogy, it’s like the partner is old man Gower and you are a young George Bailey. You can watch the old man deteriorate and put poison in bottles, or you could do something to help prevent disaster. Extraordinary.

But come after you? For what? Your mistakes? Unless you are stealing from the firm, shagging a client, or both, I wouldn’t worry about it. Lawyers make mistakes. Plenty of them. We just don’t like to acknowledge them because, well, mistakes in our profession are only seen as a weakness, a liability, a claim. Not something to learn from and move on, like you (and the partner) have actually already done with your mistakes.

Good luck. I mean that.

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

3 Comments

  1. Daniel

    March 9, 2012 at 9:40 am

    I am the author of the letter.

    Thank you very much for your advice, it’s given me some good perspective. He’s a smart, honest, genuinely caring fellow, so I think he’ll respond positively, if I can find a way to do it. After him, I’m the most present senior lawyer in the firm, so I guess it’s time to step up my game.

  2. southern bitter

    March 9, 2012 at 11:24 am

    i say it’s a case for a mad CYA letter. perhaps after you speak with him, thank him sincerely for hearing you out and being understanding. agreed that i’m not sure what he can come after you for…but CYA that $%^&.

  3. Frank G

    March 11, 2012 at 7:54 am

    Poor sumbeeotch trying to make a go of it. I’d stick it out with the dude because jobs are hard to come by these days and because he was there for you when you had issues.

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