Reporting to the Lawyer From Hell

Photo by Maureen T. McKay

By Murray Gottheil | July 19, 2023

So imagine that you are a newbie lawyer working for a firm.  When your were looking for your first job, nobody told you that the most important consideration was to work for a competent person of good character, so you chose your job based on other factors which seemed important at the time, like prestige or money. 

Eventually you figured out that you report to a lawyer whose style is an unhealthy mix of one or more of overworked, impatient, uninformed, lazy, and unethical. Let’s call them the “Lawyer from Hell” or “LFH.”

When you are asked to do something which does not sit quite right with you, you meet with the LFH to request advice and instructions. You leave the meeting with instructions which are a variation on one or more of the following themes:

  1. Yes, you can handle that issue. No, you do not need to consult with anyone else. Just figure it out;
  2. No, there is no problem with backdating that document;
  3. Of course there is no conflict of interest; or
  4. Just get it done as quickly as the client or the accountant wants it done and stop being such a worrier.

So off you go and do your best. What choice do you have? Surely the LFH who sits in the magnificent corner office knows best. Don’t they?

I have spoken to young lawyers who found themselves in this position. There is never an easy answer as to how they handle the situation, although they should always remember that lawyers are responsible for complying with ethical rules and have the same liability for negligence whether they have been practicing for fifty years or fifty minutes. “The partner told me to do it” is just not a viable defense, whether in the context of a disciplinary hearing or a negligence claim.

If you find yourself in this situation, here are some things for you to think about:

  1. If the LFH is ethically challenged or simply a bully, the relationship is doomed, unless you are prepared to go over to the Dark Side of the Force. They are not going to change. Start thinking about how to get out from under them now;
  2. Take some time to understand the firm dynamics. If the LFH is representative of the firm culture, you will not be able to get out from under them without getting out of the firm.  Just do it. Nothing good is going to come from delaying the inevitable;
  3. If, on the other hand, the LFH is an outlier, there is hope. Find someone whom you can go to with your concerns, such as a strong human resources manager, a department head, or the managing partner; and
  4. If instructed to do something that is contrary to ethical rules, simply refuse, even if it puts your job at risk. If told to do something that is ethical but which may seem risky, the situation may be more difficult to navigate and you may feel compelled to follow the instructions. In either case, you should make detailed notes concerning the issues raised and the instructions given to you, date them, sign them, and store them somewhere safe. You may need them.

George Washington said, “It is better to be alone than in bad company.” Be sure that next time you go to work for someone, you make damn sure that you know what type of company you will be keeping.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at


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