As lawyers at Latham and Watkins advise, “Nothing will sour your reputation quicker than a bad attitude!” Let’s talk about exactly what goes into creating the image of having a “bad attitude.”
There’s something quite interesting about the traits you will find here. They’re extremes of behavior that’s otherwise fine or even admirable—for instance, self-confidence. You need a healthy dose of self-confidence to be a great lawyer. You cannot seem hesitant, insecure, or neurotic. But when you go overboard with self-confidence, you’re arrogant, and from what I hear from lawyers all over the country, that’s career suicide.
Take another one: chatting with colleagues. You cannot lock yourself away and refuse to socialize with your colleagues. You need to appear to “fit in,” and you need to hear what’s traveling through the grapevine. But if you seem to spend too much time chatting, or others see you as a gossiper, or you have too good a time at parties and get wasted, your reputation will suffer.
How about being honest? Honesty is a trait that everybody values until you say to a colleague, “You’re fat,” your secretary, “You’re incompetent,” or your client, “You’re a liar, and your case stinks.” In other words, when your honesty crosses the line to tactlessness, you’re paving the way out the door.
With that in mind, let’s talk about the qualities you should avoid manifesting at work.
What qualities should you not display at work?
1. Being Arrogant
Arrogant people have the same problem that psychotics have: they tend not to see it in themselves. What you regard as healthy self-esteem may be interpreted by other people as arrogance. You may think you’re only pointing out the truth, but others will be shocked by your insensitivity.
Here’s why having the arrogance tag pinned to you is so poisonous.
Human nature is such that we do not like people for how great they are. We like them for how they make us feel. We seek out the company of people who make us feel good about ourselves. If you do not do that—if you think it’s your job to put people in their place, or you say things to them to let them know just who they’re dealing with, they’ll hate you. And when people hate you, they look for an opportunity to hurt you.
As a new lawyer, you cannot succeed on your own. You need other people. You need to be shown the ropes and pick up many skills that law school just doesn’t teach you. OK, maybe you are the sharpest tool in the box. But nobody wants to hear how you outshine them.
There’s no such thing as a meritocracy. If you make it known that no matter how well you did in school or how confident you are in your abilities, you’ve got a lot to learn and are grateful to people who teach you and work with you, people will do anything to help you out. You’ll take those stellar credentials and turn them into a fabulous career. If you do not, they’ll have the daggers out for you, waiting for you to slip (and you will). They’ll cut you no slack. And your career will be over before it’s hardly had a chance to start.
Next, I will explain the kinds of things that people you work with will take as arrogance. I do not care how you perceive these actions and statements yourself. What’s important is other people’s perceptions.
What behavior is considered arrogant in a law firm?
a. Making a point of mentioning your law school or your accomplishments in school.
Maybe you went to a great law school. You should be proud of that. Perhaps you were at the top of your class. Congratulations, it’s an accomplishment nobody will ever be able to take away from you. But please, keep it to yourself.
Your education is only as meaningful as what you do with it. If you went to a great school or you were on Law Review, trust me, everybody at the office knows about it. All that outstanding credentials will get you are increased expectations of your performance and a little wiggle room when you slip—people will assume you’ve got the ability, you just had a bad day. But credentials do not carry you on a sedan chair to a successful career.
A large firm’s managing partner once told me about getting a summer clerk from a very prestigious law school. At the firm’s very first social event, this clerk went up to him, threw an arm around his shoulder, and said, “So, Frank [not his real name], tell me why I should pick you all.” The managing partner said, “I was too stunned to speak. This kid was dead meat.”
If you pay attention to powerful people, you notice that they do not have to brag about it. You do not see Bill Gates boasting about his billions. People who are truly secure in their accomplishments let what they’ve done and what they’re doing speak for themselves. Focus your attention not on telling people what makes you so unique but instead on doing things that create an indelible impression in their minds. After all, they’ll believe it if they see that you’re terrific. They’ll resent it if you say it.
A hiring partner told me a story about a guy who’d come out of school with a 4.0 GPA and was new to his office. “This guy was earning a well-deserved reputation for being self-centered. He had been asked to share an office with someone, and before the other person could move in, he arranged the furniture to appropriate two-thirds of the office to himself. I got down and dirty with him and told him he would not be successful unless he started treating others the way he would like to be treated.
After twenty minutes of my most heartfelt coaching, his response was, ‘Gee, that sounds good, but how do I know you’re right?’ The upshot of the story is that he jumped from our office before he could be pushed. After passing the bar, he went to work as an attorney for a firm in town and lasted about ninety days. That was more than ten years ago, and except for a stint as a sole practitioner, he hasn’t worked as an attorney since. When he approached me several years ago about coming back to work for us, I wasn’t the least bit interested.”
After a very short while, people who brag about where they went to school start sounding pathetic. It’s a “What have you done for me lately?” kind of thing. People will think, “Why does (s)he have to keep on bringing up school? What’s (s)he trying to cover up?”
I remember a guy who had gone to a genuinely great school. You would know it immediately. It’s on the east coast. Anyway, he was a brilliant guy. I quickly noticed a pattern: Every time I met any of his friends from school, they’d make a particular point of bringing up the school thing. It was pretty funny because, after all, I knew they’d gone to school with this guy, and they knew that I knew where he went to school, so it wasn’t vital to bring it up.
I finally told him, “You know, whenever I meet any of your friends, I’m getting hit over the head with the school thing. It’s like they’re tomcats pissing on the furniture to mark their intellectual territory. It’s kind of arrogant, do not you think?” He immediately said, “do not be ridiculous, they do not bring it up, it’s your imagination, you’re jealous, they’re not like that.” So I told him, “I’ll bet you a dinner that the next time I meet one of your school friends, within thirty seconds, he’ll manage to squeeze into the conversation the fact that he went to X school.” He took the bet.
Shortly after that, we arranged to have dinner with his roommate—whom I hadn’t met yet—and sure enough, this guy had been a college classmate of his. We were supposed to meet at their apartment. I got there and met the roommate, and he was very nice. Immediately after we met, he excused himself and came back into the room in less than a minute, saying to my friend, “Hey, did you see what came in the mail today?” And he held up their college alumni magazine, with the name of the school emblazoned across the front. My friend looked at me, his face reddening. He said, “So—where do you want to eat dinner?”
You get the point. Leave the pride thing unspoken. Let your parents brag about you. Let your sterling credentials permeate your work. Believe you’ve got to live up to your credentials by producing outstanding work and doing whatever it takes to show that you aren’t just book smart!
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b. Allowing the words “I deserve...” to poison your attitude.
Do not even think those words unless you precede them with, “I’ll do what it takes to earn what I think...”
Every employer moans about new graduates emerging from law school with a “sense of entitlement.” As an attorney at O’Melveny and Myers says, “Manage your expectations!” If you are starting work now, you view the world differently than your employer. If you work for somebody else, you must reconcile yourself with the deal you signed up for. You’re getting whatever salary you agreed to, you’re sitting in the office space they give you, you’re accepting the support staff (or lack of it) that they provide.
When it comes to money, recognize that somebody always makes more money than you. As a new lawyer, you lose money for your employer. If you agreed to fifty or sixty or a hundred thousand dollars, do not ever let people at work hear you whine. Trust me, every law firm knows what every other law firm pays. You do not have to download stuff from websites and e-mail it to partners as a “hint hint” about the competition.
If you are at a government employer, you’re probably making less money than you might in the private sector. But you have benefits of your own—likely more livable hours, more job security, work that you find exciting and rewarding. That “psychic income” is priceless. If, on the other hand, you’re at a small firm, you certainly do not make as much to start as new associates at large firms. But statistics show that you’re likely to be neck-and-neck with your brethren at large firms within five years, and in the meantime, you’ll often have a more “livable” schedule.
The bottom line is this: Focus your energy on doing what it takes to prove that you deserve what you’re getting and you’re worth more. Take the initiative to make your superiors look good, to give excellent service to your clients, and to bring business and prestige to your employer by making a name for yourself in the profession. Do not just talk about what you “deserve.” Prove it!
c. Making sure everybody who works with you appreciates your status as an attorney.
Do not lord your newfound status over the help at the office, and do not think that it gives you a free pass when it comes to getting your hands dirty. There’s a balancing act going on. Part of lawyering is posturing, but that’s for an adversary. You need to know when to turn it off—like when you’re dealing with the receptionist.
If your employer needs you to learn a certain kind of equipment, do not respond, “Isn’t that what the secretary is for?” If they need you to stay late and help fax and collate documents, do not get your knickers in a twist because they’re asking you to do work that’s beneath you. As I explain in great detail when I talk about the importance of being perceived as a team player, if you start behaving as though you’re too good for certain kinds of tasks, you will not get the opportunity to do much else.
d. Creating the perception that you know how to be a lawyer when you’re starting out
When you get out of school, you’re not as smart as you think you are. Law school teaches that we are privy to a highly specialized body of knowledge, that we are special and brilliant people. There’s a lot to learn, however, from other people and experiences.
Be humble—you’ll learn more, be respected more, and have more friends!
An attitude that indicates you’ve “made it” and you’re ready to reap the benefits of your education immediately or a sense that you do not have anything else to learn will cause you nothing but problems. You want to be self-confident but humble, willing to learn, respectful of your position, and ready to work.
e. Behaving as though your excellent credentials mean you should bypass your peers and socialize only with your superiors
Big mistake. A lawyer at one firm described the experience of a new associate who was “flavor of the month” in all the partners’ eyes. “In that he is their golden child of the moment, he decides that he is just too good to mingle with the other associates, preferring to have lunch with a different partner each day. Unsurprisingly, he finds himself ostracized by the other associates and quickly gains the reputation among the partners as a “non-team player” in that none of the other associates even bother to acknowledge him, much less work with him.”
Remember, you need friends at work. If your superiors have great expectations of you and favor you as a result, be humble about it with your colleagues. If they’re jealous of your status, they will not help you out when you need it—and you will need it.
2. Exhibiting a Lack of Self-Confidence
Every employer wants to believe they’ve made a wise hiring decision by bringing you on board. While I’ve emphasized that you have a lot to learn when you enter the legal profession, you do not want to say things that make your employer wonder whether you’ve got the raw material to make it. Part of that “raw material” is exhibiting faith in your ability to learn what you do not know.
A small firm lawyer once said, “We hired a new female associate in a job where we really needed a go-getter. But with every new project, she’d give us this forlorn look and say, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ We knew that. It would have been fine if she asked for examples and advice on projects. But she didn’t. She was just tentative.”
As Hamline’s Joyce Laher says, “Employers go through a lot of expense and trouble hiring you, and they want to believe they’ve got the best of the bunch. Self-effacing comments make them feel like they were wrong! Self-deprecating or disclaiming statements like ‘I’m not ready for this,’ ‘I do not know much about X,’ ‘I only did that once before,’ should not be part of your vocabulary. They make employers tremor! Remember that your first or second year, you’ll feel a lot of the time that you’re ‘whistling in the dark.’ You can do it: they would not have hired you otherwise! Do not be intimidated by the environment!”
Watch also how you speak. If you continuously say “I’m sorry”—“I’m sorry, but could you help me with this?” “I’m sorry, but could you tell me how to work the phone system?” Apologizing when you’ve made a mistake is not just appropriate; it’s mandatory. But when you pepper your conversation with “I’m sorry’s,” you sound unsure of yourself, and you’ll make people uncomfortable.
Also, delete the “urns” from your speech. If you frequently pause when you talk and fill the gaps with “ers” and “ahs,” the person listening to you will perceive that you lack confidence—and you do not want that!
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3. Appearing Competitive With Your Colleagues
It’s easy to look at your colleagues as competitors for offers and promotions and great work. It’s easy, but it’s a mistake. If you cultivate your peers, you not only make your current work environment easier and more harmonious, but you’re laying the groundwork for your future. Your first job is likely to be a stepping stone in a long line of career-building experiences.
Remember that your fellow associates could someday be your partners, voting on your compensation and other partner perks. They may also move on to in-house positions and be in a position to provide you with client work. Make friends with people who may be your references or future sources of client and job referrals.
Almost all of the more experienced attorneys I talk to got their wonderful jobs not through job ads or headhunters but because somebody who liked them tapped them on the shoulder and offered them their job. The moral here: Do not alienate your colleagues, in a twisted sense of its-me-or-them. It isn't. As O.C. Systems’ Laura Rowe Lane succinctly puts it, “Be nice to everybody else in the sandbox!”
4. Focusing on Your Work to the Exclusion of Ingratiating Yourself With Your Colleagues
The actress Ethel Barrymore once said that “For an actress to be a success she must have the face of Venus, the brains of Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of Macaulay, the figure of Juno, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” Similarly, if you’re going to be a great lawyer, you cannot be a one-trick pony. It doesn’t matter how great your work is if people cannot stand you.
Many people start their careers thinking that if you do a bang-up job on the work assigned to you, your work will speak for itself. As the managing partner at one large firm said, “You cannot be arrogant, smart, and lack people skills, and expect to get ahead.”
The fact is that law is a service business. When you start, unless you’re a sole practitioner, your clients are your superiors. As your career progresses, you weave in skills like business generation (if you’re in private practice) or grant writing or fundraising (in public interest), or faculty politics (if you teach).
Still, in every single situation, your success depends on much more than your actual work product. Your value as a leader or business generator has much more to do with how you deal with people than it does with your legal intellect.
As one senior partner told me, “Standing out isn’t always a matter of objective legal skill. How well do you work with others? If you are enthusiastic, you show a sincere desire to do well and work hard, you show a commitment to the law that shows that it’s more than just a job, you always seem to welcome working with people, and as a bottom line, you’re simply fun to work with—you’re going to stand out and attract good work.”
So do not think you can closet yourself in the library and ignore everything else. People will resent you, and you will not succeed.
5. Conversational Flaws: Interrupting and Swearing
Do not interrupt people. It says, “I’m quicker than you, and what I have to say is more important.”
Nobody wants to feel that way. Recognize that if you speak and think quickly, it’s often true that you can finish people’s sentences for them, and you’re impatient to get on to the next point. But it’s just rude, and people will resent it, even if they do not show it.
If you are in the habit of interrupting, make a particular point of saying, “I’m sorry, I interrupted,” whenever you do it, and giving people a chance to finish their thoughts. You will be liked and respected more if you learn to let people complete what they’re saying.
When it comes to swearing, let other people swear, but do not do it yourself. Lots of lawyers swear, but when you’re new, do not let yourself be one of them. It sends out the wrong signals, and it offends a lot of people who’ll never speak up and say anything to you about it. You have a great vocabulary. Use it.
6. Complaining About Your Work
Whether there’s too much or too little of it, or it’s too difficult or too mundane or too boring, keep your complaints out of the office. I’m not saying you should not complain to anybody: Just do not whine at work. It will not help you.
Complaining about your work doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s easy to think that if you complain about doing a certain kind of work, that people will recognize that you really deserve better projects. That’s kind of like trying to get an inattentive spouse to pay more attention to you by berating them and making them feel bad for ignoring you. Your behavior will have just the opposite effect you want it to have.
Similarly, if you’re getting too much work, moaning about it will not help you. There is a multitude of ways to minimize your workload without ever complaining about it or saying “no” to a project. Complaining will just make you sound like you’re not capable, and you do not want that.
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7. Complaining About Clients
OK, maybe you have clients who are chuckleheads. And maybe they get themselves into really boneheaded predicaments, or they have simply terrible ideas about how to handle their lives and businesses. Or maybe they’re just nasty, nasty people. But remember, if they could do all this stuff themselves, you would be out of work.
Whether you’re working for a government agency or a private firm, your clients are what make it possible for you to have work and get paid. If a client is that much of a pain, all of your colleagues know it, as well. You do not have to chip in your two cents to point it out.
8. Behaving as Though Your Personal Life is More Important Than Your Work (Even Though—Let's Face It—That’s True)
This is a tough one because, after all, your work isn’t your life. Your work is a means of creating the life you want. You’ll always have things that you want to do outside of work (at least, I hope so!). One of the things about being a lawyer that bites is that your schedule is often not your own. Client problems come up at inopportune times. Criminals do not work according to a convenient calendar. Stuff happens when you do not want it to, and it conflicts with your personal life. What do you do?
Do not make it obvious that you value your personal life more than your work. That’s all. You can balance your life much better than you think you can if you just watch the way you say things.
One firm’s partner told me about a new associate whom he approached Friday at 4:30 to work over the weekend on a client matter that had to be completed by Monday at 5 p.m. She whined, “I worked last weekend and I do not want to work this weekend. I want to go to the beach. Can’t it wait until Monday?” It could not, and he wound up working all weekend to finish the work himself.
He commented, “What got me wasn’t what she said, it was the way she said it. If she had said, ‘I’d love to work with you. Can I be flexible this weekend? Can I come in Saturday night or Sunday afternoon?’ I would have been thrilled. As it is, I will not use her again.”
Take that advice to heart. Instead of saying to people, “I have a dog. I have to leave by five every night,” or “My family always goes on vacation to Cape Cod for a week in the middle of July, and I’m going with them,” say, “I have a dog. If it’s not inconvenient, I need to walk him around dinnertime every night. I’ll take work home or come back to the office if you need me. And if it’s not convenient, I can hire a dog walker. But I’d like to do it myself if it’s possible.” Or with the vacation thing, say, “My family has always vacationed together on Cape Cod for a week in July. It’s a tradition I’d really like to keep up. Is there any way I can schedule my work around that week? If not, is there some work I could take with me?”
You see what I’m doing. I’m wording your request such that you put your employer in the position of being benevolent. It’s only the truly sadistic—or truly rushed or overworked—supervisor who will not respond to that kind of request. Give it a try!
9. Being Giggly
This is probably not a problem for you if you’re a guy. But I heard from more than one employer that women who giggle a lot make people think they’re immature and girlish. Everybody likes a pleasant personality and they want to know that you’re enjoying yourself at work. But giggling isn’t like that; it makes people think you’re unsure of yourself, and masking that with giggles. Smiling is fine. Laughing when something is funny is great. But a constant giggle will drive people nuts.
10. Comparing Yourself to Others and Suggesting That You're Better and Deserve More as a Result
You are not in school anymore. You’re not being graded on a curve. Degrading other people’s work and/or conduct makes you sound insecure. As lawyers at Gray Plant point out, “Anytime an associate gets competitive—saying things like ‘I worked this many hours’ or ‘I’m more senior than so-and-so’ or ‘It should be my turn for a bigger office,’ the rest of the associate group tends to discredit that person.” Let your work and your accomplishments speak for themselves and make the assumption that your superiors are clever enough to figure out for themselves who deserves more responsibility and more goodies.
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11. Creating the Image of a Brown-nosing Suck-up
I discuss elsewhere the importance of honest flattery and how valuable it can be. But when you’re willing to prostrate yourself for your boss, when you make empty statements that everybody can see are lies—“Hey, nice suit, Stan!” when it’s obvious that the pinstripes are washing off at the laundry—get you nowhere. People may be suckers for flattery, but watch what you say in front of an audience—because it’s the creation of a perception that we’re concerned with here.
12. Attempting to Control People's Behavior
When you manage people, you by necessity have to guide their behavior, just as when you work for somebody else, they guide yours. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about value judgments that we all make—that are fun to make—about how other people ought to behave.
In his autobiography, former Senator and astronaut John Glenn says he believes that a dressing-down he once gave his Mercury astronauts about their skirt-chasing might have prevented him from being the first American in space.
“I read them the riot act, saying that we had worked too hard to get into this program to see it jeopardized by anyone who could not keep his pants zipped.”
Statements starting with words like “You have to ...” “She should...” “He should have ...” “They ought to... ” will make you sound like a perpetual victim or a perpetual nag. As my favorite radio shrink is always saying, the only person whose behavior you can control is your own. Let other people learn their own lessons their own way. Do not let people hear you taking charge of areas you cannot—and have no right to—change.
13. Suggesting This Employer Is Just a Stepping Stone to What You Really Want to Do
Ambition is good. Ambition that suggests you’re walking all over your employer is not. As a new prosecutor, your goal is to move from misdemeanors to felonies. At a private firm, your goal is to become a partner. I do not care if you never intend to stay as long as it will take to move up—do not let that be obvious to your employer! Do not ever convey the attitude that you’re just using this job as a means to get what you really want. ‘I’ll do this stuff but I’ve got a dream of starting my own business,’ ‘I want to get back to the East Coast where my family is,’ ‘I want to get into venture capital’ or ‘I want to get trained and land a sweet corporate job’ just isn’t appropriate. If you’ve got dreams, I applaud you. Share those dreams with your family and your friends outside of work. Your colleagues at the office should only see your desire to learn and move ahead there.
14. Succumbing to the Influence of Alcohol
Most of the inappropriate behavior I’ve heard about is the result of the demon rum. A pop or two now and then will not make anybody think the worse of you. But if you routinely drink so much that people comment on your behavior, you’ve gone over the line—and you probably need help to quit.
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Partner on the board of various corporate clients. He is to attend a board meeting in another city on a Saturday morning. On the flight, he gets hammered. When he lands, he takes a taxi to the company's headquarters, a mirrored building in a park-like setting. The taxi leaves, and he walks to the front door. It's locked. He walks around the building and tries the rest of the doors. They are all locked, too. He figures his secretary said the wrong day for the meeting, or it has been canceled and nobody told him. In fact, the board meeting is taking place inside; he arrived late, and they locked the doors as a normal security procedure, assuming he was a no-show. He does not know this, and he's furious. He walks back toward the front of the building, intending to call a cab on his cell phone.
As he makes his way around the building, he realizes that with everything he drank on the plane, he needs to relieve himself. Looking around to make sure nobody is watching, he unzips his fly and relieves himself on one of the building’s mirrored panels.
Unbeknownst to him, the mirror is two-way. On the other side of the panel on which he's urinating is the conference room, where the other board members, stunned, are watching him the whole time.
15. Doing Too Much Pro Bono
This is a fine line to tread. It may be that the pro bono work you do suffuses your career with meaning. The problem is that it doesn’t make any money for your employer. If you do too much pro bono, they may think your heart is in pro bono. Keep a close eye on how pro bono work at your office is perceived, seeing who gets bonuses, promotions, and general applause. If you find that it’s not the people who do the amount of pro bono you want to do, ramp back your pro bono commitment.
Alternatively, get a job that leaves you more time for pro bono, or with an employer with a different attitude toward pro bono work, or consider a full-time job doing public interest work. It might not pay as much, but if it’s truly where your heart is, you’ll ultimately find that the financial sacrifice is worth it.
16. Racist or Sexist Behavior
It should go without saying that you should not undertake any behavior derogatory to a particular gender, religion, or ethnicity. It’s not just morally intolerable but, in today’s world, stupid and dangerous. Partners do not need loose cannons.
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Summer clerk, great credentials, large New York firm. At a restaurant, he gets drunk and says to another clerk, "Women should not be lawyers. I could not work for a woman." He wants to be in the real estate department at the firm, and the head of the real estate practice is a woman! No offer. Obviously.