Associates at big law firms don’t normally burn out right away. They arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, raring to go. This is their moment! Grasp the golden ring!
If you look closely, though, you’ll notice a few poor souls who burn out immediately – sometimes within a few weeks. These folks look awful almost from Day One, dread coming to work, don’t talk to the others, can’t sleep and wonder how to get out – like, immediately.
That’s because they’ve been sexually harassed.
I know. Sexual harassment is a drag of a topic, the stuff of tedious lectures by gender theorists and “Human Resource professionals.” Nothing new to say, just standard material: wince-inducing scenarios, tired platitudes about respect and crossing the line and what’s appropriate in a workplace blah blah blah…boring, scary, boring.
I hear about sexual harassment all the time from my clients, so it’s a little less boring for me, and a lot more real. There is stuff worth talking about. But I’ll keep it quick.
First, to be clear, I’m not talking about law firm sex in general. I’m as sex-positive as the next guy, and this isn’t about sex. And I’m not naïve. I’ve heard all about the “hanky-panky” – ill-advised and otherwise – that goes on at firms. Associates get it on in their offices. Partners seduce young summers. Some of those partners are married. So are some of the summers. And it’s not just a straight thing – gay associates and partners get caught up in this stuff, too.
When you’re working together around the clock at a big law firm, there’s a lot of pent-up sexual energy, so there’s oodles of sleaze. Stuff happens. That stuff might be fun, or un-fun, no big deal or something you’ll regret for a while. That’s not our topic.
Harassment is never fun or okay. It’s unwanted, unasked-for, undesired, unexciting, unpleasant, unsexy, unattractive, uncool sexual attention.
I have a theory that everything is more interesting if you stick the word “extreme” in front of it. Barbecue is okay. Extreme barbecue is way better. The same thing goes with sex. It intensifies things. Cool becomes super-cool if you add sex. Likewise, bummer turns into super-bummer if it’s sexual. Harassment is a bummer, and sexual harassment is a super-bummer.
Here’s what sexual harassment looks like:
- That overweight, bearded guy you could not be less attracted to – the young-ish partner with the photo of his wife and kids on his desk – leans over during a meeting alone with you in his office one evening and says “I’d really love to kiss you right now.” And you’re staring at a draft of a motion to dismiss and thinking you’d prefer to be anywhere else on Earth. And then he won’t leave you alone. You start getting emails telling you how hot you are.
- The fratty, a-little-too-intense senior associate you found out you’ll be reporting to next week gets drunk at the firm’s new associates retreat and won’t leave you alone. After the dinner, he invites himself along with you and some junior associate friends, then proceeds to act as though he’s on a date with you, making double entendres and generally implying that you have some sort of sexual relationship. It’s embarrassing – and now you have to go into the office and face this freak who’s supposed to be your new boss on a big case.
Welcome to sexual harassment. Yeah, it sucks. I wish it didn’t. And there’s no winning, either – no quick solution to make it go away. It’s just a bummer all around.
Some of my clients try to ignore incidents, and get on with their lives. That might sound like a good idea, at least initially. The hope is everyone will pretend it never happened and move on. The problem is that guys who sexually harass the women they work with often don’t stop after making jackasses of themselves once – they keep on making jackasses of themselves. The inappropriate stuff in his office or at the firm event turns into inappropriate stuff on the phone, on the trip to the deposition, or wherever and whenever.
Ignoring harassment also means you’re ignoring the official procedure regarding harassment as promulgated by HR, which is to report it immediately. And it means everyone will ask you later why you didn’t report it, and hold it against you and read into it and so on.
So eventually you will probably report it.
Now, in case I haven’t made this clear, I’m a shrill, strident feminist. I totally, fully, utterly, 100% urge each and every woman who has been sexually harassed to feel fully empowered to report it. Every woman – every person – who shows the courage to take this step is a hero.
…but I can’t pretend it doesn’t suck. That’s because everything about harassment sucks, including reporting it.
It is unpleasant and embarrassing, telling serious up-tight law-firm senior partner types, whom you work for – the folks responsible for your bonuses and advancement – that some idiot (one of them, in fact) couldn’t control himself and tried to kiss you during a meeting in his office.
And yes, the story will probably get around the firm, and probably embarrass and humiliate and perhaps piss off the guy who’s been harassing you, and get him in trouble or even cost him his employment – which he richly deserves, especially if, as some of these guys do, he sort of threatened your job at some point with an idiot insinuation about how he’d hate to see you trying to transfer to another department because it could affect your chances of success at the firm (yes, that happened to one of my clients, and it was as shocking and hateful as it sounds.)
But it’s no fun being the person who brings someone down when that someone works at your office, even if he was utterly inappropriate and deserves it. And it is no fun being at the firm when there are big, hush-hush meetings and everyone is whispering and you are suddenly removed from all the cases you were working on with such and such senior associate or partner, and then you are suddenly moved to an office on the other side of the building, or he is, and everyone notices that and it’s all they’re talking about. And then you walk in the next morning and there he is – Mr. Harasser – standing in the elevator next to you but pretending he doesn’t see you since he’s under strict orders to leave you alone and you try to ignore him too and the whole thing is really weird.
And maybe now you can’t do any anti-trust, or real estate work – which is why you came to that particular firm – because he was the head of that department, or he was the partner with all the work in that department. And maybe the firm is slow, so you go from having lots of work and plenty of billables to no work and no billables, which affects your bonus, or simply your chances to learn anything. And you can only wonder what your reviews are going to be like, now that you aren’t doing anything and were pulled off everything you were doing right in the middle of it – and the guy who should be reviewing you was talking to you last week in his office alone about how he wants to see you in your underpants while you were trying to sort out an outline for a deposition.
And your friends keep saying you should have taped him, or written it all down and kept a precise paper trail and sued the firm and tried to get one of those settlements worth a few hundred grand, which would have paid off your debt and left you sitting pretty, even if it killed your law career, which you think it might have done, or maybe not, who knows? In any case you didn’t, and maybe you should have, but it still seems ridiculous to get rich because this idiot made a fool of himself. Maybe not. Who knows? People do it.
So you reported him, and it sucks… now what?
You wonder who you can talk to about it. There’s your one pretty good friend at the firm, another female associate in your department – but she’s the one who started all this by talking to HR after saying she couldn’t stand listening to your stories of harassment. And you know she was right, and maybe you’re relieved that she got it over with, but now she’s looking at you like she wants to talk but you feel a wall has gone up, and somehow you don’t want to talk about it with her anymore – you just want to work here, for a change, not be “harassment girl.”
And there’s the female partner, your “mentor” who logically should be someone you can talk to, but she’s kind of, well, a bitch, and you feel – have always felt – she resents your existence at some level because you are young and pretty and oh, who knows – you just don’t like her.
And there’s the gay guy, the associate you met and have lunch with sometimes, who seems nice, but on the other hand, he doesn’t really seem to care – he’s got his own life.
And there’s the HR lady who keeps saying you can always talk to her, but she looks like she’s scared you’re going to sue, like she’s walking on eggshells.
And there’s that nice older partner, but he’s the one who decided it was appropriate to warn you not to let a senior associate into your room again, which seemed like blaming the victim – like you somehow should have known better and expected that creep would start getting weird. Maybe you should have known better. But shouldn’t the creep have known better, too – isn’t that the whole point?
And shouldn’t any of the partners, maybe just once, have followed up and asked you how you’re doing – which they never did, not once, as though everything were resolved, filed away and done – like there’s an implicit suggestion you should feel that way, too, and if you don’t there’s something wrong with you?
And you don’t think you can talk to mom anymore – it only freaks her out and gets her all upset. And you don’t even want to go there with dad.
So you talk to your therapist. And maybe he gets it. And working with him, you can start to get your head wrapped around this entire awful experience.
And now all you can think about is leaving. You’ve been at the firm a whopping two and a half months. Other people might hate it there too – but at least they had time to learn to hate it.
You want to go somewhere else, and start over, like none of this garbage ever happened. But the headhunter says you have to stay at least a year – and then good luck finding work as a second year.
Yeah. It totally sucks.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)