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by Mary Kate Sheridan | November 12, 2018


Unhappy Emoji phone

We’ve all heard the stories of partners from hell—nightmarish tales of screaming; belittling; and throwing staplers, files, or whatever else is handy. If you’re a law firm associate, you may understand the plight of working with a difficult partner all too well. Shouting and other inappropriate behavior may not even be involved; rather, a partner’s relentless demand for your time, general lack of respect, and dissatisfaction with anything but utter perfection can turn an associate’s life into pure misery. Read on for advice on how to come out on top when a partner is dragging you down.

Show An Interest

When slogging through hours of work at the mercy of an insatiable partner, the last thing on your mind is likely said partner’s interests. But it should be. Find out what makes the partner tick and see if there is a genuine way to weave that into conversation. Perhaps you’ll glean something from the decor in the partner’s office, or maybe the partner’s hobbies are well known. You may need to ask more senior associates about the partner and what he or she likes to do. Or, if you can get up the courage, you can try making small talk with the partner here and there. Once you’ve gotten a hold on the partner’s interests, ask questions about them—show curiosity. People love talking about themselves, and making small talk about topics the partner enjoys may start to chip away some of the harsh facade.

Do Good Work

It should probably go without saying that to get on a partner’s good side, you need to prove yourself professionally. Meet your deadlines. Turn in clean work. Make sure your research is thorough. Remain polite and helpful to clients. It’s not just about turning around good work product though—you should push yourself to learn as much about the practice area too. Making efforts to understand the work will show your commitment.

Seek Out Mentoring

The last place you may want to get guidance is from the partner who is ruining your life, but doing so may lighten the situation. You’re never going to completely take the sting out of a difficult partner. But if you appeal to his or her ego by demonstrating an interest in the work and his or her advice, you may find that the partner is willing to be helpful rather than always cut you down. And if the partner starts to view you as a protege, s/he may take a greater interest in showing you the ropes. Plus, sometimes the most demanding partners are the most brilliant, and gaining insight into how they’ve developed their career and business may be quite valuable.

Look Elsewhere

Some partners are harder to crack than the Grinch, and even if you turn in perfect work and try to engage with them, you won’t be able to get through. If none of your efforts help you build a relationship and curb some of the difficulty, find mentoring elsewhere. I’m not suggesting you complain to another partner about the burdensome one. But having a partner with your back may give you greater confidence in yourself and your work if the difficult partner brings you down. And gaining career insights from another partner can help you better navigate how to interact with those who are harder.

Be Social

You’re billing 60-plus hours a week for a partner from Hades—the last thing on your mind is making friends or finding time for the ones you have. But it’s really important for your own well-being to take some breaks. At the firm, this may mean actually taking a lunch or dinner break and not just eating at your desk. I know that with all of that work hanging over you head, it’s hard to step away—especially when you feel your every move is being judged. But spending time with fellow associates can give you much-needed time to decompress and allows you to be with people who truly understand the intense work environment you’re in.  If you don’t have that much time to spare, pop into a friend’s office for a few minutes or grab some coffee to go. Sometimes it’s amazing how much a little time off can re-ground you.

Talk to Someone

There’s a difference between difficult and abusive. If a partner is particular, demanding, and impolite, that’s one thing. But if a partner harasses you, engages in discriminatory behavior, or is disparaging, you should talk to someone—a partner or relevant administrator—with whom you are comfortable. Many lawyers put up with bad behavior because they’ve invested so much time and effort into their careers, and they don’t want to jeopardize their futures. But when the behavior crosses the line, you should not endure it.

Sometimes the fate of your associate life is the luck of which partner you draw. A difficult partner can make already-grueling associate life even tougher. But if you approach the partner the right way or find support from other at the firm, you will survive.