Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

3 Ways to Deal With Bullies

Here’s some free risk management advice: if you happen to run into a bully in the courtroom, in your office hallway, or even on the phone – don’t fight fire with fire.

It won’t do any good, and it might end up getting you in trouble.

Instead of trying to beat bullies at their own game, defuse them by cutting their power source. Or look inward to summon your inner athlete.

Those are two techniques recommended by Heidi K. Brown, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School and a noted author of books on empowered advocacy.

“Law students, lawyers, legal assistants, support staff, court reporters and even judges endure bullying from individuals who often are excused as ‘strong personalities,’ ‘eccentric rainmakers,’ ‘results-driven’ or ‘just under a lot of pressure,’” she writes in this ABA Journal article. “When I encountered such characters in law practice, I erroneously assumed their behavior was the direct result of me making some sort of mistake. Like, I should have been tougher, louder, better, quicker on my feet, clairvoyant, meaner. After a decade of reflection, studying myself and how law practice affected my mental and physical health and that of colleagues, I realize, no. These people were bullies, plain and simple.”

The Rules of Professional Conduct mandate civility and respectful behavior. But in actual practice, lawyers sometimes fall short of that standard. That’s why Professor Brown’s article – which suggests specific ways to deal with bullying – is recommended reading.

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Dealing with Bullies 101

“We rarely talk about how to effectively stand up to or defuse bullies in the legal profession,” writes Professor Brown. “We lament a decline in civility. We reaccentuate standards of professionalism. But when do we teach junior attorneys how to mentally and physically recalibrate in a bullying moment, and if, when and how to substantively respond to the offender?... Working in a legal environment obviously takes grit and stamina. Some cases are fast-paced; others require slogging through months of discovery, and genuine last-minute crises arise. The law can be equally exhilarating and frustrating, and emotions naturally heighten. But there is a marked difference between a person in a position of strength, power or authority seeking to motivate an individual to do the best job they can versus using that influence as a weapon to cut someone down or make someone feel weak or inferior.”

Bullying thrives in situations where there is a disparity in power and authority. In the law, Professor Brown writes, it appears in different forms:

  • A more senior opposing counsel mistreats a junior lawyer by constantly interrupting her deposition, speaking over her on conference calls or using sarcasm to call attention to her purported lack of experience.
  • A supervising attorney yells and slams doors around law office interns, junior attorneys and support staff, intentionally fueling a volatile office atmosphere.
  • A boss persistently keeps employees completely in the dark until the last minute about whether they need to work late again, all weekend or through holidays.
  • A supervisor purposely withholds feedback about whether employees are meeting expectations.

Office bullying can also take more subtle forms, such as when leaders create an atmosphere where employees feel they’ve done something wrong but don’t know what that “something” is, and where supervisors flip-flop on decisions so that employees question their own memories or judgment after acting in reliance upon the bully’s initial position.

3 Ways to Handle a Bully

  1. Do a mental reboot. “[C]atch ourselves if we start to self-blame,” writes Professor Brown. “Notice the launch of any negative mental soundtrack and stop. Take a realistic stock of what just happened: ‘No, this feels like underhanded manipulation. … No, this feels like inappropriate aggression. … No, this feels like intentional undermining.’ Then, we mentally reboot and launch a new internal soundtrack: ‘I worked hard to be in this professional moment. I did the work. I prepared as much as humanly possible based on my level of experience and expertise. I exercised my best judgment. I deserve to be here.’”
  2. Call on your inner athlete. “Bullying behavior is intended to make us feel weak and small,” according to Professor Brown. “Often, when we feel verbally attacked, our bodies automatically launch self-protective mechanisms….. [I]nstead of caving inward, let’s channel our inner athlete. In a bullying moment, let’s pause and notice if our bodies have shifted to self-protect. Then, let’s recalibrate with intention. Stand or sit in a balanced stance like an athlete primed to move in any direction. Open your physical frame—shoulders back, hands and arms open, spine tall—allowing energy, blood and oxygen to flow in a productive way and power your brain.”
  3. Cut the power source. “To defuse bullies, to cut their power source, we must assert, and we can do it concisely and deftly,” writes Professor Brown. “We’re not going to engage in a debate. We are not going to get defensive or make excuses. We are not going to try to bond. We’re going to deliver a short, concrete assertion that cuts to the chase. Consider a combination of these: ‘I perceive that you are trying to [intimidate/confuse/rattle/manipulate/embarrass/humiliate/demean/test] me;’ ‘I worked hard to be here. I’m working hard right now; ‘Raising your voice at me is the opposite of motivation;’ ‘Demeaning me is not conducive to moving this case forward;’ ‘My goal is to do a great job for you, but respectfully, I can’t read your mind.’”


This article appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 issue of the ABA Journal. Professor Heidi K. Brown is the author of The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy (ABA 2017) and Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy (ABA 2019).



About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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