I received a call last night from the department’s HR rep. He could not have been nicer or more polite as he pointed out that some people were upset because my blog was “too personal.” How ironic when the point of the blog is to describe how impersonally I was treated and what a devastating impact it had on my mental health. And once again, instead of dealing with me directly, they have someone else reach out to me. This is a perfect segue to today’s entry:
I got sideways with some of the lawyers in the department (mostly the direct reports and their protégées) pretty quickly, which dismayed me because I had always been able to get along with even the most difficult of clients. I knew how to build rapport with people so I could deal with them effectively.
You have to get to know people, however, before you can build rapport with them and create a collaborative working relationship. In this department there were virtually no opportunities to get to know my colleagues. No communication, no rapport, no collaboration.
At first I blamed myself when these mishaps occurred. I left many of my weekly meetings with my boss in tears because I had stepped on someone’s toes without knowing it. Here I was, a 50 year old woman with over 25 years of experience as a lawyer, and I’m trying to hide my tears as I walk down the hall to my office. Talk about a walk of shame.
For example, I worked on a company policy that required employees to report violations of some sort. One of the issues we discussed at our meetings was whether employees should report all violations or only the material ones. Trouble is, it’s hard to define what is trivial and what is serious. My view was the employees should not have to try to define what is “material.” I argued that this is subjective and open to interpretation. My view was that it is better to over-report than underreport.
Once the team finished drafting the policy, it was sent to the governance committee for review and approval. I was not invited to this meeting, so I did not get the chance to explain why we did what we did.
Sure enough, when the final policy came out, the word “material” had been inserted.
Silly me, I thought my point of view should—and could -- be expressed. I figured if they knew why I had omitted the word, they would take it out. Or at least we would discuss it.
So I sent an e-mail to the members of the committee in which I politely explained why we had intentionally left it out.
At my next meeting with my boss, I got reprimanded for sending the e-mail. I was surprised, to say the least. It seems I had ticked off the lawyer member of the committee, who was one of the GC’s direct reports and a long time member of the department. Supposedly I had violated one of the law department’s counseling principles, which was to “speak with one voice.” The problem with this principle was that there was so little communication inside the department that it was impossible for me to know what that one voice was supposed to say. And it became readily apparent to me that the “one voice” was the voice of the direct reports, not a minion like me.
That one inadvertent slip impacted my performance rating for three years. Three years. Never mind that I put a contracting process in place that saved the company $2 million every year. No, what mattered was that I had ticked off a big wig in the department.
Why didn’t he come and talk to me himself if he was angry? His office was just down the hall from mine. Ah, the prerogative of the prima donna. Get someone else to do your dirty work while you polish your tiara. Passive aggressiveness is so much more fun than confronting an issue directly.
One might think that I would have learned my lesson after this first humiliation, but I did not. Why? Because I could never tell where the landmines were hidden. They were everywhere.
Next example: I supported the purchasing department, and one of my colleagues supported Finance. Sometimes there was overlap on issues, and the clients would get confused as to who they should call. One of the purchasing agents set up a meeting with the colleague and me to get “role clarity”, which is a fancy way of saying who is supposed to be doing what.
When the meeting notice went out, the colleague called me and asked what the meeting was about. I told him.
“Goddammit,” he yelled over the phone. “Those purchasing assholes are out to get me. They don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. I am sick and tired of dealing with those assholes.”
On and on he went with his tantrum until I finally told him his swearing was inappropriate and I hung up.
He got to my boss before I did and I got in trouble. Never mind that he had yelled at me, not the other way around. Never mind that our company values include the words “integrity, trust and respect.” Those words would taunt me for years. I took the whipping like a weak puppy and slunk back to my office.
Third example: Another colleague asked me for my opinion on a contract issue. By this time I had been practicing contract law for a number of years. There aren’t a lot of rules for contracts. Businesses have a lot of latitude in what they do. You figure out what works mostly through experience and common sense.
What I didn’t know at that time is that in-house lawyers in this department were not supposed to give their own opinions. I guess they were supposed to call outside counsel and ask them. An opinion from an in-house lawyer didn't seem to be valid until it had been confirmed by outside counsel.
But I didn’t know that, so I sent him my opinion.
He wrote back: “what is the basis of your opinion?”
As I said, there aren’t a lot of statutes or case law on contracts, so I said “experience and common sense.” It was the truth, but he apparently thought I was being snide. Once again, instead of dealing with me directly, he, like the two other lawyers before him, complained to my boss.
Once again I left her office in tears.
These episodes pulverized my confidence and self esteem. I would go home at night demoralized. Every morning before I left for work my husband would give me a pep talk so I could face the day. I’m a stress eater so my weight would balloon up and then I would diet and it would go down, and then I would get upset and start to eat, and the cycle would repeat itself endlessly. I began to lose interest in my hobbies and my children's activities.
I admit I am direct and blunt at times, and obviously I can’t keep my mouth shut. But the irony of the situation was that my clients liked that about me. They appreciated my honesty and directness. When they asked questions, I gave them practical answers that they could use instead of legal mumbo jumbo. I thought that was what lawyers were supposed to do—serve their clients.