It is almost inevitable in a workplace that subordinates with complain about their jobs and possibly badmouth management. At pretty much every law firm I worked at before starting my own practice, associates routinely badmouthed partners about all types of issues, from unfairness in compensation to how each partner managed workflow. Usually, associates would badmouth partners in hushed tones in an office or common area, and sometimes associates would use messaging apps to badmouth superiors. However, associates need to be very careful when badmouthing partners, since partners usually do not take kindly to discovering the badmouthing, and this might have serious consequences on an associate’s career.
Associates need to be particularly careful when badmouthing partners to other associates while in an office. Law firm offices often have thin walls, and even if people are conversing normally, it is possible that people can hear associates from an office next door or out in a hallway. Indeed, I have frequently sat in offices at law firms and been able to hear conversations perfectly in the offices next door. At one firm, I sat next to a high-ranking partner, and this was useful in obtaining important gossip about what was going on in that office.
Even more dangerous is when associates decide to badmouth partners in the common areas of a law firm. At some of the law firms at which I’ve worked, associates would frequently complain about a law firm and management in the pantry areas where people would typically eat their lunches. However, these areas were easy to access, and partners would frequently come in and out of these spaces. Sometimes, people would need to stop talking or change the subject quickly when a partner approached so that the partners could not hear about complaints that were being conveyed.
A handful of times, associates badmouthed partners in office elevators, which is a risky proposition. People get on and off elevators all the time, and when a law firm has multiple floors in a building, it is possible for partners to enter elevators right when associates are complaining about firm management. One time, I heard a story about a partner who overheard an associate complaining about him on an elevator. Apparently, the associate was terminated as a result of this conduct. Elevators are definitely not a safe space to badmouth law firm management.
Associates might think that it is safer to badmouth partners through messaging apps, and this might be the case. At some firms at which I have worked, many associates also exchanges emails containing disparaging comments about some of the partners at the shop. However, law firms may have the ability to check what is being sent through law firm email accounts, or such emails may be inadvertently seen by partners for any number of reasons. Moreover, many law firms have tracking software on law firm equipment, so associates who use messaging apps on law firm computers or phones may also have their messages revealed to partners.
Even if associates are using their own personal devices to badmouth partners, it is possible that such messages can be seen by management. Many law firms require associates to install software on their personal phones so associates can access law firm email accounts on their phones, and law firms can delete law firm data from phones after an associate is terminated. I am not entirely sure what such apps are capable of, but I would not be surprised if such apps gave law firm management the ability to track associates’ more personal data.
I guess the safest thing to do to keep partners from overhearing disparaging comments is not to badmouth partners. However, disparaging management is a normal part of many workplaces, and badmouthing partners can often build rapport among associates. Moreover, as detailed on the pages of this website, many partners deserve criticism. However, associates can take a few steps to badmouth partners more safely and help insulate themselves from negative consequences. Ideally, all badmouthing should occur in person and outside of a law firm office. Happy hours after work in areas distant from a law firm office are usually the best venue to badmouth partners, and it is always good for workers to meet up and bond outside of a work environment anyways. If associates really want to badmouth partners through messaging apps, they should use apps that are secure and preferably delete the messages after a time. Moreover, associates should use devices on which no law firm monitoring application have been installed.
In any case, badmouthing partners by associates is inevitable, and in some instances, this can actually be useful to associates and law firms. However, associates should take a few steps to ensure that they are able to voice criticism of their bosses without partners being able to witness their badmouthing.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.