It’s always exciting to receive a job offer (and what a relief!). During the interview phase, each party is putting their best face forward and there’s no reason to think you’re stepping into a bad situation. But it can happen that you go in with rose-colored glasses and suddenly a few months in (or worse, weeks), you realize they were selling you a false bill of goods because the office is toxic AF.
How can you avoid that? Especially in an industry where the work is always high-stress, fast-paced and urgent? Are you doomed to just work someplace you hate always?
Not so much. First, I went to differentiate between toxic and high stress because just because a space is high-stress doesn’t mean it’s toxic. The reality is that there will be many instances in your work life that cases will erupt, there will be urgent deadlines or serious matters at risk and you’ll have to rise to the occasion by working long hours and dealing with the stress that comes with those cases. Think about defense lawyers who work on capital cases or housing attorneys fighting an imminent eviction, or immigration attorneys prepping asylum claims—those are high stakes, high stress but likely it involves attorneys doing work they feel passionate about and understand the urgency that’s at play. The pace also tends to ebb and flow because good managers know that a person can’t do good work or provide zealous advocacy if they’re always at risk of burn out. So while the work can be stressful it feels manageable. I think often to my experience in legal aid and how urgent and important the work was but how there was space to manage it.
This is different than an environment that is toxic. A toxic environment adds more fuel to the fire by not creating structure, by ignoring the realities of how stressful the work can be, by harshly critiquing staff while providing little resources, and guilting you to do the work—just to name a few things.
When you’re considering a job offer how do you know when not just the work will be difficult but the work environment itself? No one has a magic ball but here are some red flags that should give you pause:
One. You google the firm or agency and there’s a lot of bad press and bad reviews from both clients and former employees. Of course, take everything with a cautious view but if there is theme to the reviews maybe those issues haven’t been resolved. Or something notorious happened and that partner is still working at the firm—does that change your perspective on working there? Great resources to check on companies is Glassdoor, Above the Law (for bad actors in big law specifically), and those random reviews clients can leave on Yelp or google. No firm will be perfect but double check to see what others are saying.
Two. The leadership all looks the same. Seriously, it’s 2022. If the partners, senior execs, and other leadership all look like they did in the 1980s recognize that it may be difficult for people of color to succeed there. And if leaders of those orgs are reading this and think that’s an unfair assumption than prove me wrong—share your retention plan for attorneys of color and your plan to increase diversity in leadership with me—I’ll wait….
Anyway, if you’re considering an offer and folks all look like a Frat pledge class, I’m not dissuading you from accepting the offer but go in knowing things may be difficult in small and large ways.
Three. They call employees family. Ok this is more a yellow flag because this shift in recognizing that work isn’t family is a growing trend. I also think there are folks in leadership who are dedicated to the mission and do view their work in that way (remember, we are all at different levels of awareness). I don’t want to ding them for that. Being a family isn’t a bad thing but it is when it’s code for taking advantage of workers. So again this is when those reviews can be super helpful.
It’s also important to pick up vibes during interviews. Again, you can go into an interview with the idea that this is your dream job and dismiss little flags because you really want this to work out. A few years ago, I interviewed for a role that on paper seemed perfect. And I wanted it to work out really badly. Thankfully, I had a few years under my belt and so I picked up on little nuances in the interview that I would have likely ignored before. Answers that seemed dismissive of clients and requests that made me jump through hoops to prove the worth of my candidacy. I decided to walk away, which sucked but looking back and hearing of others’ experience, I know I did the right thing for me. Those vibes are important! Trust your instinct!
I know in the midst of job search it can feel hopeless and you feel like you have to take whatever is offered. But you bring a lot to the table—even as a new attorney—and have the right feel things out to make sure it’s the right step for you.