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BigLaw: How to Handle a Backstabbing Associate

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, October 26, 2009

Originally published on October 19, 2009 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

"They smile in your face. All the time they want to take your place. The back stabbers." — O'Jays, Back Stabbers

Law firms are hierarchical institutions. Your place in the pecking order is well defined. You may not be thrilled about taking orders from a particular partner, but that's law firm life, right? Besides, if you work hard and distinguish yourself, greater autonomy is sure to follow. And look on the bright side! As your career progresses, at least you don't have to take orders from self-important associates. Or do you?

Ari, The Backstabber

Christa, an eighth-year associate at a large Washington, D.C. law firm, recently learned that, sometimes, a track record of demonstrated competence and the respect of one's colleagues (or at least those who occupy the top tiers of the food chain) are not necessarily enough to stave off the demands of a power-hungry attorney. In this instance, however, Christa's tormenter was not a temperamental partner. He was an associate — specifically, an eighth year associate. Like her.

Christa is a rising star. She is up for partnership this year, and has always enjoyed good relations with her colleagues in the firm's litigation practice group. Indeed, she considers herself "lucky" to work in an environment in which, she says, "everyone really does value teamwork, and there is a prevalent sense that we're all in it together," no matter what the project is or what it demands. So, when Christa was assigned to a sprawling new matter (in which attorneys from a number of practice groups were involved) she was somewhat surprised to find herself on the receiving end of some slightly less diplomatic treatment. Even more irksome — it was being doled out by a peer.

The associate in question was another eighth-year associate, whom we'll call "Ari." From the outset, Ari approached Christa with a degree of dismissive insolence that, she says, "wouldn't be appropriate to use with a secretary or a paralegal." On mass emails, Ari made a point of replying to "all," with messages issuing orders to Christa or instructing her to perform lowly research tasks. In meetings with other attorneys, Ari studiously ignored her input. But, Christa says, the tipping point in their (less-than-warm) relationship came after she wrote an important brief.

The firm had to file the brief by noon on the due date. Christa had put her finishing touches on the document, and was ready to send it off when, ten minutes before the deadline, Ari called her to say that he needed to see it. He directed her to send it over. The brief was filed on time without any changes. But, about a week later, when Christa looked over the brief to refresh her recollection of an argument she had raised, she noticed that Ari had removed her name from the front of the document.

Christa was furious. With a few keystrokes, Ari had deleted the proof of her considerable effort, and denigrated the importance of her rather significant contribution. Although she had done her best, until then, to let Ari's rudeness roll off her back, she finally decided to say something. But what? Pointing out a colleague's less-stellar qualities to a superior can seem petty.

Partners Know All — And That's Probably Good Enough

"I decided to talk to one of the partners in my practice group, with whom I have a great working relationship." She also mentioned her difficulties with Ari in a somewhat understated way. "I said something like, 'have you noticed anything weird going on with Ari?'" she recalls.

He confirmed her suspicions. The partner told her that he had, in fact, noticed that Ari did not treat her as an equal member of the team. The partner's theory was that, in addition to the fact that Ari certainly viewed her as competition (both were candidates for partnership), there was a "gender issue." In other words, Ari had trouble viewing a female colleague as a true peer.

The partner (who was, of course, chagrined to learn about the removal of Christa's name from the brief) told her that he intended to talk to Ari and straighten things out. She demurred. "I didn't want to make it more of an issue," she explains.

"I'm relieved to know that the partners I work with are aware of what's going on. For now, I'm determined to show Ari that we can work together. I'm hoping that, eventually, he'll have to accept the fact that I'm smart and experienced, and that other people take me seriously." In the meantime, though, knowing that the partners on the team understand her predicament helps her put up with the annoyance of Ari's disrespect.

"I also consider myself lucky," she says. "I was able to talk to my superiors with confidence, because I know that they respect me and view me as a valuable contributor. And I have a long history of working with them, so I knew that they could put this incident in context."

Christa acknowledges the difficulty of dealing with a hostile co-worker and navigating the minefield of office politics. She advises others confronting such a situation to "talk to someone you feel comfortable with," and who will give you the benefit of the doubt. "I wouldn't confront the person making you miserable directly," she warns. "At the end of the day, you all have to work together. The best way to prevail in the face of a dispute with a colleague is to be a valued by everyone else on the team. Sooner or later, their voices will drown his out."

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