The Screaming In Law Firms Needs To End


You may have noticed that small-firm lawyers sometimes get a bad rap. Whether it’s reports of less-than-appealing income levels or suggestions that in the rapidly changing landscape, small-firm lawyers will go the way of the dinosaur, small-firm practices aren’t always described in favorable terms.

But the truth is, the future of small law firms isn’t necessarily grim. Some small-firm lawyers are thriving in the midst of an ever-changing and  competitive legal landscape. For example, the results of the 2018 Citi Hildebrandt Client Advisory show that greatest successes in the prior year were found in the largest and the smallest law firms. As explained by the authors of the report:

In 2016 and thus far in 2017, we saw firms with strong brand names outperform the market. Interestingly, in the same period, we saw this phenomenon manifest itself at both ends of the market, as a number of the largest firms in the market and the smallest (many of them boutique firms) capitalized on their brand names, producing stronger results than mid-market firms.

And it’s not all gloom and doom when it comes to small firms and technological change. In the recently published second edition of the groundbreaking book, “Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction To Your Future,” renowned legal futurist Richard Susskind clarified his earlier conclusion (made in the first edition of his book) that most small firms wouldn’t survive past 2020 and suggested that small firms that provided unique, customized, responsive legal services would survive the transition. Sounds a lot like the successful boutique firms referred to in the Hildebrandt survey, doesn’t it?

His advice to small-firm lawyers is that they envision their place in the ever-evolving legal industry and then pivot in order to succeed in the midst of rapid technology-driven change. In the book, he suggests small-firm lawyers take into account the following factors when adjusting course:

Ask… in the 2020s, what unique value can we bring as a small legal business? Here are a few answers that pass muster: our clients have told us unequivocally that they do not want us to change; our community requires a wide range of legal services and there are no obvious competitors to our traditional offering; we are acknowledged specialists and, although small, we are as expert as anyone; although we are lawyers our clients come to use because we are their general business advisers; because we are smaller, we can offer a higher quality of service at significantly lower cost than any other legal businesses; our clients come to us because they are prepared to pay extra for a high touch, face-to-face service.

I remember the first time I heard about the concept of “screamers” in Biglaw. I was prepping for on-campus interviews and I was advised to stay away from a particular firm because they had a lot of screamers. I was young with limited work experience at the time, and the notion that a grown-ass adult would turn around scream at a colleague — even a junior one — seemed absurd.

The concept is no less absurd, but now I know it happens all too often, especially in high powered law firms.

The concept of screaming at work has gotten a lot of play since Arrested Development star Jeffrey Tambor’s berating of his co-star, Jessica Walters (a goddamned national treasure btw) became public. During an interview Walters teared up recalling the incident, saying “in like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set.” But that admission had almost no impact on her male co-stars who, to varying levels, defended Tambor’s actions because he’s talented and inappropriate screaming was just par for the course when dealing with a delicate genius.

But the phenomenon of yellers goes way beyond the entertainment industry. For a sample of just how ubiquitous it’s become, check out writer Jessica Wakeman’s Twitter thread asking for stories about screamers at work — and yes, there’s one from a law firm (“A lawyer I worked for when I was 20 cussed me out and spat water at me because I got him water without ice.”):

Usually this kind of unacceptable behavior is justified at a law firm because the screamer is a rainmaker and everyone’s scared that he’ll pack up his ball and go to another firm. (And that’s been a tried and true strategy for problematic partners in the past.) The structure of most law firms also compounds the problem — often practice groups or a partner with a discrete book of business are able to act autonomously from the whole of the firm in a little fiefdom of their own creation with little or no oversight from the larger firm structure.

But as the national zeitgeist is finally turning to issues of harassment in the workplace it is time to consider the role that tolerating and defending screamers plays in workplace harassment. At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams argues that professional humans simply have to do better:

Creating a safe, productive workplace isn’t just about preventing sexual assault. It’s about having enough respect for your fellow human beings — and enough self-control as a goddamn toilet-trained adult — to handle frustration in a way that doesn’t frighten other people. It’s about not making excuses for other people who do.

Williams characterizes this as a form of abuse designed to keep subordinates, well, subordinate:

Physical and verbal abuse, in contrast, depend on the unique shame of public humiliation. The screamer, with defiantly oversized behavior, all but dares you to fight back. After all, what’s the point of delivering an epic beatdown without an audience?

That brand of intimidation is different but very simple and effective — keep your mouths shut, everybody or next time, it’ll be you. (This dynamic also works marvelously in abusive families.) It forces those lower on the totem pole to be complicit out of fear of losing their jobs, and it reinforces to those higher up that scaring the crap out of people is an effective motivational tool, as well as a perk of being valued by the organization.

There are also the practical considerations — Biglaw firms (at least those that tout their culture as a benefit) love saying they don’t have any screamers. But, unfortunately, that can be wishcasting by folks in charge who have no idea what it’s like to work three floors up in a different department. Firms need to have these difficult conversations with the partnership — even if they don’t think it’s a problem they have.

And if an associate or staff member does come to firm management or another member of the partnership with concerns, your first move shouldn’t be reflexively defensive. Try listening. It can do wonders.

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