“Our outside counsel is always very condescending toward me. He takes time to make comments in front of my bosses that make me look very bad. I may not know a quarter of what he does as an expert, but I am still the client.
I am tired of it but don’t know how to deal with this.”
This morning I received an email from a young client that outlined the scenario above. It is one of many inquiries I have received as a coach, and as a senior attorney beforehand, that revolve around a single, critical issue: As a young woman attorney (or, in some cases, a senior woman attorney), how can I get the respect I deserve?
Each scenario has its own fine details, but here are some of the points to consider when a situation like this affects you, and ways to achieve greater resolution and respect:
1. Keep your cool, if possible. I have had senior women partners at major law firms tell me in person that the proverbial “they thought I was a secretary” has actually happened to them.
In one instance that I remember clearly, an attorney (let’s call her Isabel) told me that upon meeting a new partner (Kevin) randomly in an elevator one morning, after their firms merged, said that she was glad to meet him and be able to work with him. Kevin said hello and followed up question about her typing speed.
Isabel answered sweetly, “I am going to let that one slide, as it is clear that you didn’t realize I am one of your new partners.” Rather than being mortified, she let the news sink in and allowed him be mortified by his mistake. At the same time, she didn’t denigrate support staff as a role beneath her, which doesn’t help anyone either, just stated the facts. Isabel told me that to this day, Kevin is extra careful to be respectful around her.
While this may sound like something only a partner can pull off, associates can also keep their cool when asked to get coffee (while the male associates are working on a deal) and the like. The key is to stay calm, rather than sounding like you are annoyed or resentful, even though you may be. Humor works too.
“Sorry, I don’t do coffee. Or windows.”
2. Enlist your superiors. The worst thing you can do is imagine that you will change someone’s behavior unless there is some real leverage over him/her. It is likely that attorneys and others who do not give you the respect you deserve will not be aware of how they are acting until someone they do respect points it out to them. If there is a consistent pattern of mistreatment, you need to find someone you trust who can try to remedy the situation. If you maintain good working relationships with people above you, that conversation is much easier. Remember not to accuse the person but focus instead on the behavior.
In some cases, rather than enlisting the person’s support, it might be a topic first broached as a request for advice, “Isabel, I have a question about Kevin. Last night while I was drafting your Shareholders’ Agreement, he asked me to get him coffee. Any ideas how to approach that if it happens again?”
If possible, avoid the words “problem” or “issue” if you can, at least in the first conversation. You are simply asking for input about how to improve the situation, not labeling it as a problem (which may stick in Isabel’s mind to your detriment, as unfair as that seems). Of course, if the lack of respect is much more serious, then it does need to be raised as such.
3. Understand that the institution may be broken. There are times – more than we wish to know about – that bad behavior is tolerated because an individual is otherwise valuable to the firm. Usually this means he/she is making the firm lots of money, but there are other reasons that someone may be able to consistently act poorly to others and remain in a seat of power. In these cases, you need to figure out if you can (generally) isolate yourself from the individual without harming your career, or if it is time to move on.
If you have determined that senior management will continue to allow certain individuals to undermine you and treat you poorly, it is important to free yourself of the toxicity that can result from being too long in that type of environment, which can have an affect on your overall health.
4. Embody confidence gracefully. If you are subject to condescension, be confident without doing a reverse power play. Know your strengths, and do not allow yourself to be “tripped up” by the fancy footwork of someone who thrives on always being right or in charge. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to do your homework, get up to speed or (at times) work hard to understand complicated things on your own. What is does mean is that people are much less likely to talk over you or give you short shrift if you make it clear that it is not in their best interest to do so.
For example, if I were in the same situation as my client above, I would probably say something like, “Thanks, Joe, I’m glad you understand all of this so well. What’s important for both of us right now is for me to understand the parts I need to advise Susan [the CEO] on this transaction. I don’t need to become an expert. I just need you to slow down and explain this one part again so I can get it right and anticipate her questions about it.”
If Joe still lords over you, you may need to speak up for yourself again, or call back for clarification. “You sent me to the statute, but when I read the statute, it isn’t exactly as I heard you explain it. Let me walk you through what I heard again. Yep, I want to make completely sure the rules haven’t changed and there is nothing else we are missing in this case…. Do you have the statute in front of you? OK, call me back when you have it open…”
What is crucial here is that you step into the role of power, without ever calling direct attention to that fact. You are the one advising the CEO (or other senior management). Joe is there to serve you and your company, which is why you are paying him in the first place. Don’t make him lose face by saying it directly, especially if you have no direct influence over whether to fire him and hire someone else. (Influence you should take pains to cultivate over time, by the way.)
Take the microphone, as the saying goes, rather than telling Joe that he needs to give it to you.
5. Invoke curiosity. Just as coming from a place of humor can work to diffuse a situation, so can curiosity. I will give you an example from my law firm days. I was representing a CEO who has just fired his COO. My guy claimed that the other guy just wasn’t doing any work, but there was an issue that the employment agreement (which thankfully I hadn’t drafted) did not explicitly list this as a reason the COO could be fired. The dispute was not only over regular compensation, but whether the COO should receive any future profits or be cut off on the date of termination.
The COO’s lawyer called me in a hot and bothered state. His guy was not going to budge. He would get 100% of what he was asking for or we were going to court. And what did I think about that?
I could have been offended along the lines of “Who was this person trying to crush me like a bug?” I could have gotten huffy in return. But I did not. Instead, I approached the comment with a posture of curiosity. “How interesting that you would take a hardline approach,” I said. “You obviously know that we will just do the same in return. [Which was true.] Our clients have some emotional skin in the game. Don’t you think as lawyers it is our job to keep clear heads?”
It worked. I had leveled the playing field. We were lawyers – equals – and it was our job to sort this out. The other attorney was so flabbergasted he had to get off the phone a few minutes later, flubbing his words. He was obviously used to turning the screws and getting his way, and I had made it clear in so many words that this negotiating tactic would not work with me.
He was mad on a second call. I was curious again. “Are we fighting with each other too now? I thought we were the lawyers.” I then walked him through my points one by one. Again, I threw him off his game, and he stopped talking down to me, because he could see it would get him nowhere. We won the dispute, and I kept my self-respect.
Lawyers and others, if you have your own ideas about how to gain respect in a particular workplace situation, feel free to leave a comment below.
Anne Marie Segal is a career coach and résumé writer for attorneys, executives and entrepreneurs. For more information, please visit her website at www.segalcoaching.com.
© 2016 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.
Image above: Shutterstock.