A jerk in my law office is driving me crazy

He's like Jack Nichoson in "As Good As It Gets" -- only more unfair!

By Cary Tennis
Published March 16, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've had a problem at my job that's been ongoing for close to 10 years now. I've been a receptionist/secretary/legal assistant/recycler/errand runner for a legal-services office that represents indigent misdemeanor defendants. These are mostly folks who have made mistakes, not actual criminals, and it's satisfying to see many of them come around and find a better way. This job is very gratifying to me, a quality that had eluded me for my previous decade or so of grown-up employment in the legal staff field.

My boss and I have an easy relationship, and share many interests (politics, music, etc.). We have had only a few disagreements, and it's always about the same subject: One of the lawyers who works here is a complete asshole, has no business working in this field, and my boss supports him no matter what, in a totally knee-jerk kind of way. Literally, if I try to tell "Todd" about "Stew's" latest transgression, his eyes glaze over and he spouts something like, "Well, I've never seen him do that," or some such nonsense. I am not a complainer and it takes something really serious for me to complain about Stew because of Todd's unwavering support of him. The last time I complained was when an attorney friend of mine told me he sat down next to Stew in court one morning, said hello, and noticed that Stew's breath smelled strongly of alcohol.

Stew is very proud of the fact that he does work on the side as the prosecutor for a tiny, right-wing hamlet well on the outskirts of our liberal Midwestern college town. The truth is, he pretty much does whatever the cops tell him to do, some of which is reprehensible. I find this completely contrary to the legal services work we do here. In fact, Stew does nothing for the defendant clients assigned to him, pleading them guilty at the first opportunity and closing the file so he can get his dollar now.

Stew is obsessive about keeping track of my comings and goings, as if it could help to get me fired, which he desperately wants. I do need to come and go a lot, since I am the only support staff, but he tries to make something of it, as if my not being there is a failing.

I don't understand why my boss, a bleeding-heart liberal, cannot see Stew for the unbelievably bad man that he is. Stew makes Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets" look good, because at least that guy was honest; he treated everybody like shit. Stew, on the other hand, treats only the people who he thinks don't matter like shit and sucks up like crazy to everybody else.

Hopefully I will hear something from you because I am ready to kick my boss's ass and tell him to grow a dick, something I'd really rather not do.


Dear M,

I think you are in a great position to upgrade your skills and find a new job. That's what I think you ought to do. It doesn't sound like your boss and this other attorney are likely to change. It can't be good for your health to be taking this kind of abuse. You need to get out of there.

Besides, you should be doing more interesting and demanding work -- doing research on behalf of clients, going into the courtroom as a paralegal and fighting for these indigent defendants alongside the lawyers.

You can do this. Think of all the contacts you have in the legal community with whom you are on a first-name basis. Think of all the phone numbers of judges, prosecutors, public defenders and social service personnel in your Rolodex! And think of all your practical legal knowledge. You don't have to take this crap. You can find a better-paying position at a better firm, and do more satisfying work.

You have a lot of drive to help people, and a lot of compassion. Put that to work for yourself. Exactly how you go about it will depend on your specific circumstances. I think California is the only state that officially certifies paralegals. I don't know what the setup is in your state. But your practical, hands-on knowledge of legal procedures, social service agencies, clients and so forth are valuable.

This can't be the only socially progressive legal firm in town. "Stew" can't be the only jerk lawyer in town, either. But you can find a firm run by sane, level-headed partners. In fact, through your contacts, you probably already know who the really nasty bosses are and who the good ones are.

I tell you, if I were you, I'd get to work finding a new job where you can make more money, do more legal research and client advocacy, be more involved in the trial process and work with lawyers who genuinely respect you. Best of luck!

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