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How to Respond to Bullying in Big Law (Perspective)

Oct. 25, 2016, 10:54 PM

Editor’s Note: The author is the former chair of a large U.S. law firm.

By Donald Mrozek, Chair Emeritus, Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP

A recently released survey of law firm leaders conducted by legal industry consultants Patrick McKenna and David Parnell found that 93 percent of respondents of 124 law firms admitted that instances of bullying have occurred at their firms. It is the duty of all law firm leaders to address this cancer — which affects not only the particular firm but also the legal profession as a whole — head on.

During my many years as chairman of Hinshaw & Culbertson, I dealt with various situations involving behavior which can properly be characterized as bullying or harassing. The most serious involved an office managing partner who more than once berated other attorneys in the office. Another involved one of our more “profitable” partners who occasionally brought other attorneys in the office, male and female, to tears. These were, to be sure, rare exceptions to the rule of treating one another with respect which permeated the firm. Dealing with these situations helped crystalize the thoughts and suggestions expressed herein.

In addressing the phenomenon of bullying, firms must be proactive. Firm leaders must subscribe to certain core values which are paramount to their firm’s culture. At Hinshaw, those core values include integrity, fairness, civility and treating all with whom we come in contact with mutual respect. Firm leaders must regularly communicate these values to all of the firm’s constituents, initially in a written value/policy statement, and thereafter orally at firm and practice group meetings, training sessions, etc. The managing partner and other firm leaders must consistently deliver the message and make clear that no one is exempt from compliance.

The policy statement should explicitly state that bullying will not be tolerated. It should encourage all firm constituents to report any violation to the committee described below. Finally, it should unequivocally state that the firm will not permit retaliation against the reporting person.

Firm leaders should establish an appropriate reporting and investigating mechanism. I recommend the establishment of a committee of highly respected partners to whom incidents are reported. The committee should be small in number — three partners in most firms is ideal — supported by the firm’s human resources director or other human resources professional. Its charge should be not only to investigate reports of bullying (or for that matter other unacceptable behavior) but also to recommend corrective action in all instances where the report is found to be credible. The committee should report directly to the firm’s managing partner.

The type of corrective action which the committee can recommend should be set forth in the committee’s “charter.” It should include requiring the offender to attend at least several professional counseling sessions. Relatedly, the firm should maintain a list of respected counselors to whom to refer the offender or, in larger firms, should enroll the offender in a professionally managed Employee Assistance Program which maintains a network of counselors to whom the referral can be made. The second layer of corrective action should be a recommendation to the managing partner that the offender be removed from any leadership position in the firm and/or have a significant downward adjustment in compensation. This action is suitable for repeat offenders and particularly egregious conduct. The final layer — for the most outrageous conduct — is to recommend the offender’s expulsion from the firm.

The establishment of the committee and its duties and responsibilities should be published to all constituents of the firm. The policy statement referred to above should accompany the publication.

Finally, the managing partner must respect the committee’s role. Specifically, he or she must give substantial deference to the committee’s recommendations and, absent highly unusual circumstances, follow that recommendation. Such will ensure the authority and credibility of the committee and the process which follows. An authoritative, credible committee will serve not only as an effective enforcement body but also act to proactively prevent bullying.

Bullying has no place in the law firm. It is every law firm leader’s duty to protect their firm’s integrity and core values and to answer the question “what kind of firm do we want to be” with the answer “one in which we treat one another with mutual respect and bullying is not tolerated.”

Donald L. Mrozek leads the Consultants and Coaches for the Profession™ Practice at Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP. He helps law firm leaders address complex business- and management-related challenges and opportunities involved in effectively managing their firms. Mrozek served as Hinshaw’s chairman from 1989–2015.

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