In a recent coaching call that I do a couple of times a month inside the Litigation Paralegal Boot Camp, I had a question from one of the paralegals about how to handle an attorney who is okay one day and then the next day is yelling and screaming at her. We had some other paralegals also jump in and give their advice on what to do when your boss yells at you.
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The Inspiration for this BlogAfter that coaching call, I got angry. Angry at the attorneys who treat their staff like that. And this is someone who is in a very small firm and has no one to turn to. There’s no HR department to go talk to. There’s no supervisor or office manager. Rightfully, in her mind, it’s either dealing with it or being unemployed. And this is her first job, so she’s hoping she can hang in until she’s got a year or two of experience under her belt because she knows it will be easier to find another job once she has that experience on her resume. This is dedicated to her. But also in addition to getting angry at the attorneys who do this, I also felt compelled to get on here and talk about this problem in more detail because it’s more prevalent than you might think. If you’re a part of any of the paralegal social media groups, you see them say similar things about attorneys in larger offices with colleagues, more attorneys, and even office managers – and it still happens. So this isn’t just me bashing solo practitioners. Okay, but like all of our blogs, it’s not just going to be me ranting or expressing my opinion. I’m going to give you some actionable strategies if your boss yells at you or something like this. Even if you’re not. If you’re lucky enough to be working for a sane attorney who treats you with respect, maybe you know someone who could benefit from this episode. Please share this with them. Or share it on social media, because you never know if someone out there is dealing with this and feels isolated and doesn’t know who to talk to about it. Here are some great tips for combatting negativity in the workplace.
Working with a Difficult AttorneyLet me start by acknowledging that in my 30 years in the legal industry, I’ve worked for some difficult attorneys. I’d almost say I had a knack for it – being able to work for someone who others in the office had a hard time working with. Let’s get something straight. There is a difference between a difficult attorney and an abusive attorney or a boss yelling at you. I call those “jerk attorneys,” because I can’t say the other word on here. Let’s start with the difficult. I’ll give you some examples of what I’ve seen, either because I’ve experienced it directly, or I’ve had to address it as a manager. A difficult attorney might be one:
- That always waits until the last minute for EVERYTHING that they assign to you. You know, the one who comes to you at 4:45 with a project that has to be out the door by 5:30, only it’s something that is clearly going to take two hours to get done. I’m not talking about the attorney who occasionally has a last-minute request. I’m talking about the one who’s had that draft motion on their desk for four days and waits until the day of the deadline to decide to work on it.
- Who is a micromanager.
- That never gives you clear instructions on what they want and then complains when you do it wrong.
- Who holds back praise or any type of feedback.
- That thinks there’s a food chain at a law firm and you’re at the bottom of it.
Why You Shouldn’t Tolerate a Screaming BossThat is completely different than the attorney or boss who yells at you when you do something wrong. Not raises a voice, but literally yells or screams at you, belittles you, or worse yet, berates you in front of other colleagues. Those attorneys are jerks and what they are doing is abusive. In my opinion, if your attorney is doing those things – and I don’t care if you made a mistake or messed something up. If your attorney or boss yells and screams at you they are jerks and what they are doing is not being a “bad boss,” it’s abusive. Working for a screaming boss is a nightmare that many employees have to deal with – not just paralegals. Yelling, shouting, and belittling comments can take a huge emotional toll, leaving people feeling demoralized, stressed, and helpless. It’s important to understand that this kind of behavior is not acceptable or normal in the workplace. In this blog, I want to talk about why you shouldn’t tolerate a screaming boss and give you some actionable strategies if you or someone you know is dealing with this at work. Working for a boss who yells is not just unpleasant, it’s also unacceptable. No one deserves to be subjected to this kind of treatment, regardless of their job title or responsibilities. And regardless of whether or not you’re on the receiving end of this because of a mistake you made. Not only does it create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, but it can also damage your self-esteem and confidence. When you’re constantly subjected to criticism and harsh words, it’s easy to start questioning your abilities and worth as a paralegal. Then it puts you on guard and that anxiety will likely lead to more mistakes. Dealing with stress and anxiety? Try these 6 tips to avoid paralegal burnout.
How to Take Action When Your Boss YellsSo what do you do about it? I have to be careful here because I certainly don’t want anyone to become unemployed and then not be able to find another job before the bills start piling up. Instead, what I’ll do is tell you what I would do if it was me. And I’ll give you a few different strategies so that you can determine if one of them could be customized for your unique situation and for what YOU feel comfortable with.
1. Update Your ResumeThe first thing I would do, regardless of what you ultimately decide to do with anything else I suggest – would be to update your resume. Right now. Don’t put it on your to-do list and wait until the next explosion. Do it now. And then put it out there discreetly to a few recruiters. I’m not saying to quit. I’m saying, have a Plan B in place if the worst-case scenario happens. Then you’re a few steps ahead into the job search process. Also, it will give you some security and maybe a little more confidence in your own mind. Almost like when you have that rainy day fund stashed aside. You know what happens when you have the funds set aside for an emergency…you don’t have any emergencies! When you don’t have a rainy day fund, that’s always when the car breaks down or that major home repair comes out of nowhere. Now, even though I am not telling you that you should quit, you should know some of the statistics out there: A Forbes article I read recently said that studies show it takes an employee 22 months after leaving a bad boss to fully recover their physical and emotional health. In the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, there was a study that revealed that a toxic boss or boss that yells can give you greater odds of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. You know what else it can do: Wreck your self-esteem. Alright, back to the resume. If you’re going to work on your resume, don’t just update it with your current position and a few bullet points of things you do in your current position. Update ALL of your positions with the things that you did at each position that will show a future employer what you can bring to the table. Don’t just put things on your resume like “e-filed motions with the court.” Every litigation paralegal knows how to e-file. What unique experience can you bring to the table? If you’re a personal injury paralegal, don’t list something like “requested medical records” because not only can everyone do that, but a law firm can also outsource something like that to a vendor. What can you do for them that’s more than that? Something that shows your value and sets you apart from other applicants. Again, the reason I suggest doing the resume first is that you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re rushed because you’re unemployed and need a paycheck as soon as possible. Your brain is in a different space when that happens. Do it now while you’re still employed.
2. Talk to Your BossIf you feel comfortable doing so, it may be worth having a one-on-one conversation with your attorney about their behavior before it happens again. In other words, while everyone is calm, including the attorney. Here are some strategies for managing that conversation:
- Choose the right time and place: Make sure you choose a time when your attorney is calm and not in the middle of a stressful situation. Choose a private place where you can talk without interruptions or distractions.
- Be clear and specific: It’s important to be clear and concise about the behavior you’re experiencing and how it’s impacting you. For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed that when you get frustrated, you often raise your voice and use a harsh tone. I find that really upsetting and it distracts me from doing the best job possible for you.”
- Use “I” statements: Instead of accusing your boss of bad behavior, focus on how their behavior is impacting you. For example, you might say, “I feel really stressed out and anxious when you yell at me. It’s hard for me to focus on my work when I feel like I’m constantly on edge.”
- Be prepared for pushback: Your attorney may not take your feedback well and might become defensive or dismissive. Staying calm and professional is important, even if they become hostile. Try to stick to your talking points and avoid getting drawn into an argument or shouting match.
A Repeat Offense: Your Boss Yells at You AgainAlright, now let’s assume you already did steps 1 and 2. And the next week, your attorney comes into the office in a bad mood. Something doesn’t go their way, or maybe you mess something up, and your boss yells at you. You can do one of these things: Calmly say to them I do not appreciate you speaking to me like that. When you want to discuss this in a calm manner that is productive for both of us, let me know. Then walk away. Literally, turn your back to them and walk away. Or if you feel like you can’t say something like that to them without getting upset or emotional, then just walk away mid-sentence. Nothing in your job description says you have to be willing to sit quietly while someone berates, belittles, or yells at you. You might not think you have the courage to do something like this, but you do. The reason you think you don’t is that every time you let someone treat you like that, they are chipping away at your self-esteem. Little by little. The way to start getting back some of your self-esteem is to stand up for yourself. But when you do you should do it in a respectful way. Even if your boss yells at you or even if someone else at work does, don’t give it back to them like that. Get the latest tips on self-care for paralegals.
Setting Clear BoundariesThis is all about setting clear boundaries to make it known that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. This can help establish a clear expectation of how you expect to be treated in the workplace, and can also help you feel more empowered in the face of difficult circumstances. When setting boundaries, it’s important to be clear, specific, and firm. Here are some tips for setting boundaries with a screaming boss:
- Be clear about what you will and won’t tolerate: If your boss yells at you after you’ve already had a conversation about their behavior, it’s important to let them know that you won’t tolerate it. Be specific about what you’re referring to, and let them know how it makes you feel.
- Be assertive but not aggressive: Setting boundaries doesn’t mean being aggressive or confrontational. Instead, it’s about calmly and assertively stating your needs and expectations. Use “I” statements to communicate how their behavior is impacting you, and try to remain calm and professional.
- Follow through on consequences: If you’ve set boundaries and your boss continues to behave inappropriately, it’s important to follow through on any consequences you’ve established. This might mean walking away from a conversation if they start yelling, or seeking support from HR or a higher-up if the behavior continues.
- Get support: Dealing with a boss who yells can be incredibly stressful, and it’s important to have a support system in place. This might include friends and family, a therapist or counselor, or even coworkers who are dealing with similar issues.
You Deserve Better than a Screaming BossThe bottom line is this: no one, not you, the paralegal down the hall, or anyone else deserves to be screamed at when someone else is having a bad day. Or even if you did do something wrong. If you did do something wrong, own up to it, and tell them it won’t happen again, but that making a mistake doesn’t justify being screamed at. And then finally I would add: ask yourself and answer this honestly. If you didn’t have a job right now. You were unemployed. Would you take the job you have now, knowing what you know? You’re interviewing, and you know exactly what to expect, would you willingly take this job?
Meet the Author
Ann Pearson is the Founder of the Paralegal Boot Camp, and host of the Paralegals on Fire! Podcast Show, and passionate about promoting the paralegal profession.
Ann spent 20 years working as a paralegal manager and a litigation paralegal before opening the Paralegal Boot Camp in 2010. Her training programs focus on adding immediate value to a paralegal’s career and bridging the gap between what a paralegal learns in school and what they actually do on the job.
When Ann is not working, you can usually find her somewhere near the ocean – either boating, scuba diving, or rescuing sea turtles.
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