People generally love to badmouth their employers, especially if their employer is implementing a policy that is disfavored or is failing to look after employees’ needs. Indeed, at every single law firm at which I worked before starting my own practice, associate attorneys would constantly gossip and badmouth disfavored practices. This often helped build a connection between employees and would help pass the time when work was slow. However, at some law firms, certain partners also badmouthed the law firm which employed all of us. This is generally bad for morale, and partners should definitely watch what they say if they commonly badmouth a law firm to associates.
To be clear, most partners understand that it is not usually a good idea to badmouth a law firm. Even though partners might have issues with a law firm, voicing concerns with associates is unlikely to lead to any positive change that can benefit a partner. Moreover, voicing concerns with associates can irritate other partners, which can have a negative impact on a given partner’s career at a law firm. However, sometimes partners cannot resist the urge to gossip and badmouth a law firm to associates. Perhaps the partner has unique knowledge about a situation or just wants to get something off their chest. In any event, some more-senior attorneys cannot resist the urge to badmouth a law firm to other lawyers at a shop, including associates.
I once worked at a law firm where the partners would routinely badmouth the law firm and other partners. The law firm was not doing well financially, and it was safe to say that its best days were well behind us. People at the firm complained about wages, oversight by managers, and numerous other issues that people had to deal with during the course of their jobs. I did not get the sense that most of the partners were equity partners of the shop and had a financial stake at the law firm. Most of the partners were just elevated to this position for the sake of the title due to having been at the firm for a number of years, and it was probably easier for them to bill the attorneys at a higher rate if clients knew that they were partners at a shop.
Hearing partners badmouth the law firm often had no benefits for the firm. None of this lead to any positive changes at the shop since associates had absolutely no “juice” at the firm and could not implement any type of changes as a result of what the partners said. Moreover, associates second-guessed the future of the firm because of all of the badmouthing which, 1.) made it less likely that associates would sacrifice to improve the firm and, 2.) made it more likely that associates would look for the exits and find new positions. The badmouthing partners also sucked up oxygen around the office, since the time they spent gossiping about how awful things were was time not spent billing hours or completing other tasks that could improve a law firm.
Perhaps more importantly for the partners, badmouthing a law firm to associates did not make these partners look good. Although everyone loves office gossip, people might respect partners who badmouth their own law firms less. Some might think that it is a partner’s duty to toe the party line and that they are not living up to their job expectations if they spend their time badmouthing the firm that employs the partner.
The respect of associates can be important to the future career prospects of partners, as I have discussed in a few previous articles. Associates enter all different kinds of roles after they leave their law firm jobs. If these associates enter in-house roles or the business sector, they can be a good source of business for partners who used to employ them. Even if they stay in private practice, associates who leave shops can always refer matters that they cannot handle themselves to former partners. However, associates might be less likely to refer matters to partners who badmouthed their former law firms since these former associates might not respect the partners as much due to this conduct.
All told, office gossip is inevitable, and sometimes it can be enjoyable to badmouth a law firm, especially if a shop is guilty of egregious practices toward its employees. However, partners should be more careful about not speaking negatively of their employer since this can have a number of negative consequences for the firm and their own reputation as well.
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.