Surviving a Bad Boss in the Legal Workplace

As an in-house lawyer at a company with multiple layers of hierarchy, you will likely at some point come across a supervisor with poor management skills. Being adept at navigating around bad managers can be key to thriving in such an environment.

Poor management skills can manifest in different forms. Some bosses are overly involved in every detail of projects to the point of becoming micromanagers. On the other end of the spectrum, some bosses are too hands-off or completely checked out. This can make it difficult to get proper guidance on projects. Finally, there are the bosses that promote a toxic workplace culture or display overt favoritism toward certain employees.

Knowing how to respond to different poor management behaviors can help with survival in such a workplace. While these tips are equally applicable in both legal and non-legal workplaces, the legal profession is known for being particularly hierarchical. Without effective tools for dealing with toxic leadership, bad bosses can greatly shape the work environment for the worst.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash


The Micromanaging Boss

Some bosses hover over your shoulder and feel the need to monitor your every move. They need constant assurance that tasks are being completed.

Working under a micromanager can feel overbearing. Micromanaging bosses also can give the impression that they lack trust in your ability to independently make progress on a project. Micromanagement over time can inhibit creativity and growth. Even worse, it can make team members feel undervalued and erode interpersonal relationships.

The U.S. Army General George Patton aptly captured the sentiment around micromanagement. “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

One strategy for coping with a micromanaging boss is to give in to their desires. Overly share status updates before they even ask for it. Flooding a micromanager with information may build their trust and cause them to eventually loosen their grip over you.

“Become their ally,” says Mary Abbajay, the president and cofounder of Careerstone Group, a professional development network. “All they need is information and control, so you just give it to them.”


The Toxic Boss

The toxic boss that creates a miserable workplace environment can be amongst the hardest situations to navigate effectively. Toxic leadership can result in a toxic culture.

Terrible behavior can be overt or passive. Some bosses simply bully their employees in order to drive results. While this may encourage short-term progress on projects, toxic bosses tend to cause productivity to unravel over the long-term. Verbal abuse and other overtly aggressive behaviors quickly build a negative reputation. Sometimes a significant number of complaints may prompt change. The reputational damage may cause a toxic leader to reverse course and put on a more welcoming demeanor.

Passive aggression is pervasive in the legal profession. One way to deal with indirect aggression coming from a boss is to remain calm. You may want to use an empathetic approach to break the pattern of negative behavior. If you appear composed in the face of a passive-aggressive boss, this may defuse their anger and anxiety.


The MIA Boss

The missing-in-action boss may be keeping a distance for a variety of reasons. They may be burned out, checked out, or overly confident in your abilities to run with things. Such a hands-off attitude can erode productivity as the team operates without sufficient guidance.

While working without a leader can be stressful, it can also present an opportunity for you to grow and shine. It will throw you into a position of increased responsibility and force you to make logical decisions based on your judgment. It will also force you to manage upwards, testing your own leadership potential.


The Boss Displaying Overt Favoritism

Having a colleague that is subject to special treatment compared to everyone else can create a toxic workplace culture. If you are on the receiving end of blatant favoritism, you may not be alert to the negative consequences. It depends on whether the favoritism stems from performance recognition or other extraneous factors. However, if your colleagues perceive that you are getting disproportionate access to opportunities, it can create animosity directed toward you.

If you are merely a witness but not a recipient to favoritism in the workplace, you may feel resentment toward your boss or the individuals receiving favorable treatment. Ultimately, you will have to determine whether it is hindering your career advancement and decide whether a job switch is necessary.