Is it necessary to become ultra aggressive and ruthless to be successful as a lawyer?

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Q:

 
Dear NLL,

I am currently working in a commercial firm in Bangkok where I am obtaining a sign off for the legal practical component of the GDLP and would like any guidance/thoughts you may provide.

Essentially, my boss has an ultra-aggressive style and encourages all of his staff to be proactive and aggressive. He often micromanages and humiliates his staff, sometimes at group meetings and sometimes over mass email, cc’ing nearly the entire office. Since arriving I have found there is a very high turnover rate of staff due to the working conditions.

I had dinner with my boss last night and he said he could size me up: he predicted I was an only child with very supportive parents etc. He then went on to explain that he needs me to be more proactive and aggressive and will ‘toughen me up for the big bad world’.

My question is: is it necessary to become ultra aggressive and ruthless to be successful as a lawyer? Should I really be forced to change my personality – I have succeeded in other workplaces (admittedly many were short term internships) without having to do so. And if this boss can ‘size me up’ so easily, does this mean he could manipulate me down the track? He appears to have a habit of playing good cop/bad cop and has already threatened not to supervise my GDLP sign off. Is this part and parcel of practicing commercial law?

I’m sorry if these questions are a little broad or misdirected, but any guidance or thoughts you might have would be greatly appreciated. I’m at a stage now where I am thinking of whether to stay in this job or take up an offer for a junior position back in Oz.

Nathan

A:

 
Dear Nathan,

Firstly, I want to share with you that you will often come across “personalities” in the workplace and, for reasons that I can only guess at, the more difficult ones (read sociopaths) always seem to rise to the top and assume positions of power.

On the little information you have shared with me, it seems that your boss is one of these people. Not only does his style of relating sound off-putting, but he also appears to lack an understanding of what is required of a professional in a workplace setting. His behavior to your colleagues is despicable. It’s also totally unacceptable for him to try to “sum” you up, as if people are not complex creatures that cannot be even guessed at, let alone truly understood, at short and superficial acquaintance.

What this means is that you mustn’t take anything he says as a reflection on you. It is clear as day to me that this man has his own array of problems that are infecting his work and his capacity to manage and mentor in an appropriate and effective way.

Your instincts about him are spot on. You must, therefore, guard against your own personal fears that there may be some truth in what he says about your needing to be more ultra aggressive to be a good lawyer.

I can assure you that you do not need to be aggressive to be a lawyer. Yes, it helps to be able to have an aggressive bent at times if you are planning on being an advocate. Advocates “advocate” – they go in to fight for someone’s rights and by its very nature, the adversarial system will require from advocates a certain demeanour – a fighter’s stance if you like – among many other things. Mind you, generally, I teach advocates to use this very, very sparingly so, in reality, I don’t place too great an importance on it. Advocacy is also a very small part of legal practice. Most matters are dealt with by way of negotiation where your personality type (as you describe it) is in much greater demand.

You have succeeded in other workplaces because you are intelligent and competent. That’s all that you need to be a lawyer. You are probably a great worker to have on board too. I’m betting you work hard, create few ripples and that you’d never be responsible for drama in the workplace. That this particular employer cannot appear to appreciate your unique contributions again says something about him. Not you. The evidence is there – you’ve done just fine before.

Whilst it would not be appropriate for me to advise you to move employment, I make the following points:

  • You have another job – as I understand it – waiting for you in Melbourne. That is a position other graduates would really envy.
  • You have to spend a lot of time in the workplace and if it is a toxic place for you, it will impact on you negatively. It sounds to me like it already has.

Only you can make the decision about whether to stay or go. I would only advise that you ultimately set yourself the goal of seeking employment in a place where you can be your authentic self. Firstly, it’s a gift that other people deserve. Secondly, it’s what you owe yourself anyway.

I hope this assists in some way.

Arna