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Are You A Toxic BigLaw Associate? Probably More Than You Realize

Here are 7 ways in which even well-meaning associates can be toxic

BigLaw associates often complain about the toxic work culture. And for good reason: in BigLaw, toxicity is woven into the fabric of the garment. But, more often that we realize, associates are especially active participants in creating and perpetuating the very same toxicity of which we complain.

We’re not usually doing it on purpose. In fact, our accidental participation in toxic behavior is typically motivated by our desire to be ‘good’ at our jobs. When we apologize for any inconvenience we may be causing by being sick, we’re just following the established norm. We’re not actually creating the norm—are we? The Saturday night email to our direct report is just to get something off our plate—not to ruin a weekend. And logging in a little when we have time on vacation is just being a team player—not setting expectations for others. Right?

The BigLaw working experience can feel like a race to the bottom. But there is no race without runners. While associates can’t opt out entirely, we don’t have to be such willing participants either. Have you engaged in any of these toxic BigLaw behaviors? We have. We didn’t always know better. But eventually we realized that culture doesn’t just come from the top down—we have some say in the matter too. The BigLaw culture is all of us. The BigLaw culture is you.

1. Apologizing when apologies are not warranted

Have you ever apologized to a more senior associate or partner for something that doesn’t merit an apology? Sadly, for most of us, the answer is yes. Two examples of unnecessary apologies regularly repeated in BigLaw are (1) apologizing for the inconvenience caused by our (or a relative’s) sickness or other health issues, and (2) apologizing for an hour or two delay in responding to an email that isn’t time sensitive.

The absurdity of BigLaw’s apology culture can be remarkable. What does it say about us that we would apologize for the perceived inconvenience of a dying relative, sick child, positive COVID test or other sensitive personal matter?

The truth is that these apologies serve no useful purpose. You’re not actually sorry (or at least you shouldn’t be). Nor have you done anything wrong. Your supervisor isn’t expecting or impressed by your apology either.

In truth, the only thing that this type of apology shows is your participation in the toxic idea that your day job is more important than your health or most cherished personal relationships. Nobody actually believes this, so the apology is really just an insincere display of unnecessary subservience.

Apologizing for reasonable response times to non-urgent emails is similarly ridiculous. If the email doesn’t require (or even request) an immediate response, then why should we apologize for failing to provide one? Most likely, you’re not actually sorry but may (consciously or subconsciously) believe that throwing in a ‘sorry’ somehow makes you look better or more responsible. In fact, apologizing under these circumstances tends to have the opposite effect, as unwarranted apologies make you look weak and as though you lack self-respect. It’s fine to apologize when an apology is actually warranted, but—even in these situations—what supervisors really want is for you to acknowledge the issue / error and propose a plan to remedy it. Not only is this more effective, but it also projects confidence and control.

In terms of workplace toxicity, think about the message you’re sending when you apologize for failing to instantaneously reply to incoming emails. Especially when other associates are copied, you become complicit in establishing the ever-devolving benchmark for what a timely response means. Don’t be that person.

2. Sending unnecessary late-night or weekend emails

Most email traffic is not urgent, and unnecessary late-night and weekend email traffic can be particularly toxic. Even emails that expressly tell the recipient to ‘feel free to ignore until tomorrow / Monday’ can be triggering and stress-inducing. Imagine yourself as the weekend draws to a close, fighting off the Sunday scaries by enjoying a movie with your significant other. All of a sudden a senior associate emails you with a drafting project—‘definitely don’t look at this before tomorrow,’ they tell you, but you of course read the email. You’re not going to start drafting right away, but is your mind really going to be at peace for the rest of the night? Maybe, if you’re particularly good at compartmentalizing, but most of us will probably get stressed just thinking about the work that needs to get done the next day.

Chances are, the senior associate in this scenario is not trying to ruin your Sunday night. From their perspective, they’re just giving you a heads-up so you can plan your Monday morning accordingly, but such emails can, and often do, trigger anxiety.

So before you send late-night or weekend emails, ask yourself why you are doing it—does the recipient need this email right away (sometimes they do), or are you just trying to get something off your plate because it happens to be a convenient time for you? Or worse, are you just trying to impress the recipient by demonstrating dedication to your job at odd hours?

Good email etiquette is an act of kindness. Unless you have an active, urgent matter, on nights and weekends, think about giving your colleagues space to relax and decompress. For example, consider pre-typing your emails and simply sending them the next morning (or scheduling them to send automatically). Also, consider the bigger picture: do you yourself want to be on the receiving end of someone else’s midnight assignments? Probably not and, if that’s the case, then, when you can, you should spare others such unnecessary emails too.

BigLaw culture is a reflection of all of our collective actions. If you find odd-hour email traffic frustrating, then take steps to ensure that your own actions don’t help normalize a culture that you yourself don’t want to be a part of. After all, everyone who is more junior than you is taking their cues from you.

3. Working while on vacation

A bit of work while on vacation can sometimes be helpful or even necessary. We get it—urgent things come up and some emails do need our attention, even when we’re traveling. Very often, however, we see vacationing associates responding to emails that don’t, strictly speaking, require their involvement. In most cases, vacation work can be avoided either by reassigning time-sensitive projects or, if the work is not time-sensitive, then simply waiting until you return to complete it.

Working while on vacation when not absolutely necessary is quite toxic. In an industry plagued by burnout, one of the worst things we can do is help normalize a culture where attorneys are expected to work on the few days they so desperately need to relax and recharge.

Typically, associates who work on vacation aren’t trying to make things worse; they often feel the pressure themselves and simply succumb. (Sometimes they do it for partner brownie points, which is typical gunner toxicity that needs no further explanation). But resisting the perplexing urge to work on vacation is critical to establishing a sustainable BigLaw culture. We all take our cues from each other, so setting a good example is crucial.

It’s also worth reflecting on how helpful your vacation work really is. While your partners certainly value hard work, their preference isn’t frantic help from someone with no boundaries who is likely to be gone in a year or two. What your partners really want is someone who takes some time off when needed to recharge, and is content enough to stay in BigLaw long term. The most valuable associates aren’t the most frantic workers, but the responsible and reliable workers who you can expect to be around for many years to come. So instead of working on vacation, do the right thing—find coverage and take a real break.

4. Not using your vacation days or parental leave

Just as toxic as working on vacation is the troubling trend of attorneys not taking vacation at all. Young associates at firms everywhere are exposed to a toxic culture where the more seasoned attorneys profess to be ‘too busy’ to take a vacation, or that vacation is too much hassle since they just end up working anyway. Young associates are also especially susceptible to spreading untruths to each other about how taking vacation early in your career looks bad.

Anti-vacation sentiment is rampant, but we can help break the chain by taking vacations ourselves, and encouraging others to do the same. Our choices will either help set a helpful precedent, or a toxic one.

Except in unusual circumstances, it is also important for associates to take the full parental leave offered to them. The number of both men and women who only take a partial parental leave is shocking—and toxic. But, in particular, men who opt out of full parental leaves should consider the broader societal impact of their actions. The best way to de-stigmatize paternity leave is to take it, take all of it, and be unapologetic about it. Only 9% of work sites in the U.S. offer paid parental leave to male employees, and 76% of fathers are back to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child. As a BigLaw attorney, you’re lucky to be in that 9% bucket, so don’t waste a chance to do the right thing.

5. Sending out-of-office memos for weekend or odd-hour / short-window unavailability

BigLaw is not a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 job and we won’t pretend otherwise. Out-of-office (OOO) memos are a helpful way to indicate your availability, or lack thereof, to your team members. With this said, OOOs indicating weekend or odd-hour / short-term unavailability (e.g., ‘I have an appointment 8-9AM Thursday’) create a toxic culture for everyone, and also sometimes have unintended consequences detrimental to the sender. Hear us out.

Let’s start with the more obvious point—toxicity. For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a first-year associate who is cc’ed on an OOO email from their senior noting she’ll be out of pocket traveling from Friday night through Sunday night. Understandable move on the part of the senior—she’s expecting some weekend email traffic, but this weekend it’s her parents’ 40th wedding anniversary and she wants to try to get in front of any possible interruptions. But how about the junior associate who just received this OOO?

Junior associates take their cues from their seniors, and seeing a more senior associate specifically carve out weekend time in an OOO suggests to them that a weekend off warrants an explicit OOO. Did the senior who simply wanted to make sure she has some undisturbed weekend time with family intend to perpetuate a culture of constant availability unless otherwise indicated? Unlikely, but this is precisely how culture is made.

Even beyond toxicity, OOO memos carving out odd windows of unavailability can set expectations that the sender never intended. Imagine a scenario where an associate sends an OOO indicating she will be out of pocket 7-9PM on a Wednesday. What’s the recipient to make out of this? One possible, and very likely, inference is that the associate plans to work after 9PM. It’s also possible that the recipient of this OOO will infer that the associate is amenable to working most late nights except for the one indicated.

We’re not saying don’t send OOOs: they certainly have a time and place. Even OOOs protecting weekends could be necessary under some circumstances.

But it’s still important to reflect on how OOOs carving out odd, narrow and/or overly specific pockets of unavailability can create an unintended presumption that the sender is otherwise available at all times, and normalize a culture that requires everyone to blast OOOs to avoid being presumed available at literally any hour.

6. Not saying ‘no’ when you’re already at capacity

One of the biggest reasons associates think BigLaw is toxic is because of their perceived inability to say ‘no’ to new or additional work when they already have enough on their plate. The reasons associates think ‘no’ is not an option are far-ranging—from lean staffing / recent departures, to concerns about the economy and potential layoffs, to worries about how a ‘no’ will be perceived, what it says about their work ethic and how it impacts their advancement. Unable to say ‘no’ and drowning in work, associates feel trapped. ‘BigLaw is just toxic,’ they conclude, and either quit or resign themselves to a miserable BigLaw experience.

Interestingly, the pervasive assumption that you can’t push back on more work in BigLaw is largely untested. It’s a fear-based assumption passed from one scared associate to the next. Reasonable boundaries don't end careers, but burnout does.

So, next time when you think to yourself that BigLaw is toxic because you feel pressured to take on more work when you’re already at capacity, reflect on this:

Much of BigLaw’s pressure is self-inflicted. There is no one actually forcing you to drive yourself into the ground, though your supervisors will gladly take the extra work unless you speak up. In other words, the burden is on you to set reasonable boundaries and say ‘no’ when it’s necessary. Saying ‘no’ can be uncomfortable and scary, so most people don’t do it and blame the ‘culture’ instead. But BigLaw culture is not static: it is perpetuated by willing participants like you and me.

When you fail to say ‘no,’ you are not just burning yourself out, but you’re also helping create an environment where other associates feel like they’re not allowed to push back.

7. Adopting a stressed-out or frantic work persona

Working in BigLaw is often stressful and stress can’t always be avoided. But it goes too far when associates adopt a stressed-out or frantic persona in a misguided bid to appear busy, in-demand or important. Oftentimes, discussions with colleagues can devolve into a battle of one-upmanship to see who will wear the crown of the ‘Most Stressed’—and therefore most important—associate.

In our experience, the most enjoyable teams cultivate a culture of calm (even in the eye of the storm), while the least enjoyable teams embrace a culture of frantic absurdity, where an important measure of your dedication is how insanely busy you profess to be. On these toxic teams, a calm demeanor is mistaken for lack of dedication, while franticness is held out as some sort of weird virtue.

Our work is plenty stressful as is without this nonsense. It’s easy to assume that your stress only impacts you, but that’s hardly ever the case:

A stressed-out associate exudes franticness that permeates the team culture and sets the tone for other associates. Sadly, given BigLaw attorneys’ competitive natures, often all it takes is one frenzy-loving associate to send the whole team into a death spiral. Don’t play this foolish game and reject unnecessary BigLaw martyrdom.

In conclusion

To be clear: we're not trying to be unrealistic or promote an unreasonable standard for how BigLaw associates should act in the workplace. We understand that BigLaw culture can't be rejected entirely (unless you choose to quit the industry), and rejecting some widely adopted norms could make you look bad, so your buy-in may be advisable even if there is an element of toxicity. What we do hope, however, is that all of us in BigLaw reflect on the fact that we're active participants in, and creators of, BigLaw culture, and commit to make incremental improvements throughout our BigLaw careers.

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