Office romances are endemic in the legal profession. I see them constantly with my patients.
Why is there so much fooling around at law firms?
A partner in a couple “triangulates” – looking to a third party to replace what’s missing in his relationship.
For lawyers, that boils down to time spent together.
One married lawyer told me she flirts with a junior associate at her office. She loves her husband, but never sees him. Flirting with the junior satisfies her craving for sexual attention. Lately, though, they’ve been going out for drinks, and she’s afraid something will happen she’ll regret.
Single lawyers experience the same romantic isolation. One said she hadn’t been to a bar or club – let alone a party – for over a year. She keeps canceling dates because of work, and her friends no longer ask her out because she always says no. This month she’s been working late nights with another associate at her firm and they’ve started hooking up.
Most people divide their days in three equal parts: You work. You play. And you sleep.
Lawyers sleep – sometimes. But they don’t play – they just work. Then they work some more.
When work replaces play, you find yourself playing at work: taking Facebook breaks, creating candy games to get through doc review…or letting things turn jiggy with co-workers.
Is there a problem with getting it on at the office?
If you’re married, or in a committed relationship, the answer is easy: yes. That’s because, if you’re sleeping around, you’re lying to someone.
There’s nothing sacred or holy about monogamy. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You wouldn’t want someone to lie to you, so you shouldn’t lie to him.
For single lawyers the issues are subtler, but the answer is still yes – there is a problem.
The dysfunction created by a law firm romance is epitomized by the archetypal hook-up between a 40-something male partner and a 20-something female associate.
I see it all the time, and yes, sometimes it’s a female partner and sometimes it’s between two men or two women. Doesn’t matter. It’s a train wreck.
The partner is riding out a power trip. He’s on his second or third wife, using status and money to avoid other issues like personal insecurities and fear of commitment.
The associate gets a rush of power, too. Suddenly she’s the center of attention for a guy earning seven figures – and he’s hinting that things are falling apart with the wife.
Two big problems…
I don’t care if he’s sexy and powerful and paying you a lot of flattering attention and doesn’t seem like such a bad guy.
There’s a massive power differential and that equals exploitation.
Controlling an associate’s every waking hour and earning twenty times her salary ought to suffice to satisfy this guy’s need for attention.
Sleeping with her crosses a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Second, role confusion.
Roles exist to keep boundaries clear.
The associate is an employee. The partner is first and foremost her boss. He decides what work she does, how much she does of it and how much she’s paid. He might decide whether she can take a vacation. Theoretically, he teaches her how to be a better lawyer. And at the end of the day, he decrees whether or not she’s any good.
It confuses everything if he’s feeling up her breasts in the back seat of the black car.
Eventually, things come to a head, and work and play collide. Like when he dumps her because he and his wife are “giving it another chance.” Or when, a few weeks later, he gives her a bad review and jeopardizes her job.
I’ve seen this scenario play out too many times.
Partners should not be sleeping with associates at their firms. It’s un-professional and un-cool. If he wants to pursue a relationship, he can get to know you first, then help you transfer to another firm.
Ordinary law firm romances, even without the difference in age or power, rarely work either. There might not be the element of exploitation, but role confusion manages to muck everything up.
Sex creates an intimate connection, even if you’re both doing your damndest to ignore it. Someone – or both of you – feels a connection. If it doesn’t work out – and most hook-ups don’t turn into anything more – then someone is going to feel a rejection. There could be strong unresolved feelings.
Things turn especially uncomfortable when that guy it didn’t work out with is also the of-counsel who’s handling a super-important deposition with you. Or the junior helping you prepare a $400 million securities issuance.
The tension of a high-pressure workplace only increases when sexual or romantic overtones are added to the mix.
It is already a challenge sharing a workplace – especially putting in long hours in a competitive environment.
Relationships are a challenge, too – tough enough to pull off under the best of circumstances.
Combining workplace and personal issues is asking for trouble.
Some boundaries are worth respecting.
Ed. note: I understand that there will be debate – and disagreement – over the contents of this column. Please send me your own experiences of law firm dalliances, and we’ll continue this discussion in a future post.
[This piece is part of a series of columns created by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.]
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