My first disclaimer is that thankfully, mercifully, I don’t work for any of the horrible bosses I’m about to describe, but it’s likely that sometime in our career we will find ourselves working under conditions that have been made impossible due to the person filling the leadership role. And when you have a bad boss it really sucks. It impacts your work, your skills, and your mental/physical health. Unfortunately, bad bosses are a symptom of bad leadership overall. Their behavior chases away good talent and the higher-ups are too lazy to manage these bad actors.
Bad bosses come in all forms and I want to discuss the two that are major deal-breakers: one that is border-line, if not full-on, abusive and another that is inept.
Primero, story time! I worked with a super-abusive-I’m-sure-she-had-a-personality-disorder supervisor. She would yell about people conspiring against her whenever things wouldn’t go her way (like when she lost a file); her tone was yelling or shouting; she had weird delusions about her capabilities (claiming she had a photographic memory, but then failing to remember key things about cases)—in short, she was at best bizarre, but at worst she was an extremely off-putting, aggressive, ineffective leader. I hated working for her because it was a constant barrage of yelling, accusations, and confusion. Thankfully it was a temporary gig, but still I learned from her just how far aggressive, accusatory behavior gets you at work, which is not very far. Yes, while she was in a leadership role, she would go no further and when there were layoffs once the recession came, guess who didn’t have enough allies to help her maintain her position?
I was also fortunate enough to work with an inept attorney. This was a “leader” who did the bare minimum; didn’t care about his client’s outcomes; and didn’t give a shit about his own skills or growing as a professional. As someone who was trying to learn and gain skills in the profession it was so frustrating to try to come up with legal strategies and only have this guy not want to do anything because it would have required him to do work.
If you have identified your boss as abusive or inept you need to do what you can to find a new position because the chances of things getting better are slim. However, the road to a new job can be a long one, so in the meantime it’s important to draw a line of where you’re comfortable. Are you ok with yelling, but not name-calling? With micro-management, but not complete detachment? Determine what you’re willing to put up with so that if the line is crossed you are mentally prepared to call them out on their behavior.
You also need to CYA like no other. This means you document everything, especially for inept bosses. If they give you instructions or advice on cases, then document it to make sure that if it does blow up, you can point to the source of the problem. This part is really important because we not only risk being reprimanded at work, but we risk discipline by the Bar if things go very wrong so it’s important that we keep of record of decision-making. For example, that abusive boss who started yelling about a conspiracy against her because a file was misplaced, was quickly put in her place when someone was able to show her a memo (by her!) directing us to file the case.
Finally, you need to find support both inside and outside your firm. You should seek advice from people who have (or are) experiencing the same things to learn how to manage these behaviors. They can also tell you institutional history about what actually happens when complaints are made, which will help you decide how/if you want to continue there. And it’s super important to find mentors in the same practice area outside of your firm so that you can gain skills and get a sense of what’s normal outside of where you’re working.
Unfortunately, horrible bosses are common because many people are able to bully themselves into positions of power and often face little to no repercussions. I hope no one has to deal with abusive or inept bosses, but if it’s likely you should do what you can to get out of there so you can move on to a far better place.
And one last point—often we’re so trapped into the idea of a “dream” job and for me, I was so willing to put up with such outrageous behavior because I really, desperately wanted to work at that place. But a few years out, I know the realities of the day-in, day-out work and am SO much happier now than I would have been if I had gotten my “dream” job, so don’t put up with disrespect for the slim hope of a job because we all deserve better.