Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 6, July 2000

Issue 6, July 2000

  • Restoring Cvility to Law Firm Relationships: Effectively Managing Criticism

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 6
Restoring Civility to Law Firm Relationships: Effectively Managing Criticism


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Fears of harsh and insensitively delivered criticism preoccupy too many talented attorneys, robbing them of the kind of work focus necessary for success. This article suggests ways to manage harsh criticism. If you feel empowered to respond effectively, you'll succeed as a lawyer, and help to restore civility to legal practice.



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor

Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life



Most attorneys - especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.


Restoring Civility to Law Firm Relationships: Effectively Managing Criticism

"Being hurt by anger and criticism is not gender-specific.
Secretary of defense nominee Bobby Ray Inman withdrew
his nomination because he did not want to deal with what
he regarded as extreme and unfair attacks. This sparked
a new round of criticism of him for being too 'thin-
skinned.' In this connection, columnist Meg Greenfield
wrote that 'thin skin is the only kind of skin human
beings come with.' "
- Deborah Tannen. "Talking from 9 to 5-
Women and Men in the Workplace:
Language, Sex and Power." Avon Books,
1994. P.190.

Countless women attorneys have described to me their ongoing concerns about being harshly criticized by angry partners -- not necessarily men -- in their firms. Some women were dressed down, loudly and harshly, in front of other lawyers in the firm. When I suggest that they respond by setting limits, they insist that any statement of protest will be taken as confirmation that they're "not tough enough" to be successful in the firm. Not surprisingly, many of these women conclude that the only way to protect themselves from verbal assault is to change professions.

This belief creates a lose-lose situation for any attorney who accepts it. If you tolerate verbal abuse, it will undermine your confidence and distract you from the work to which your gifts, passion and training have led you. Tolerating this kind of criticism doesn't demonstrate your toughness; rather, it signals that you are afraid of responding, leading your critic to believe that s/he can treat you like that again.

As we all know, abusive criticism is ineffective. Management literature abounds with evidence that recognition of success encourages more success and that feelings of powerlessness and humiliation interfere with productivity.

The fact is, standing up for yourself in the face of unwarranted or inappropriately harsh criticism is a sign that you are "tough enough." My own experience and my conversations with successful women attorneys suggest that a carefully planned approach to this situation can be extremely effective.

You can learn to handle your "critics" with the same kind of skill that makes you successful in advocating for your clients. "Emotionally intelligent" responses to verbal assaults can increase the probability of your success in your firm, and in legal practice in general.

Here are some suggestions about how to respond to harsh, inappropriate, or ad hominem criticism:


Try to take criticism less personally. That does not mean it shouldn't hurt. Everyone feels humiliated when she's treated disrespectfully. But don't attribute this kind of criticism to your own failure. Even if you made a mistake, no one deserves to be treated unjustly.

Often, the attorneys who speak in a demeaning manner may not even be aware of their style or its impact. If you hear the criticism as malicious, you'll feel hamstrung. Consider the possibility that what you're hearing is the uncontrolled voice of an overworked and stressed partner who has no idea how

he comes across.

Above all, don't buy into the idea that being hurt means you're not "tough enough" or a good-enough lawyer. All it means is that you're human.


Let the person criticizing you cool down before you respond. Communicate your willingness to address substantive issues, but use your "social radar" to gauge the other person's readiness to resolve the conflict. Sometimes the best you can say is, "I can see you're upset. Let's meet tomorrow to

discuss this."


Distinguish between the "what" and the "how" of the criticism. If the complaint has merit, take appropriate responsibility. But don't be self-denegrating. Communicate your genuine regret about any mistakes you made -- but keep them in perspective.

It's also important to communicate your desire to learn and your need for training and mentoring. Lawyers under pressure can have very unrealistic expectations of less experienced attorneys. All you can do is your best -- acknowledge your limitations, and seek information and guidance from mentors. You're less likely to make egregious errors this way.


The "how" refers to the manner in which the criticism is delivered. If the tone or wording is inappropriate or disrespectful - regardless of its validity - then you need to address this.

First, try to assess your critic's mood and receptiveness. Be sure you're calm enough to show a willingness to work things out. Plan a response that is diplomatic and tactful. Try to reduce defensiveness with a softened "start up" -- thank the other person for his willingness to discuss the issue. It's important to state your concerns in neutral language and with a non-argumentative tone.

You might say something like, "I know you were really upset about...and I can understand that. I'm sure you didn't intend to be hurtful, but I wonder if you realize how demoralizing it can be to be on the receiving end of your criticism when you're that upset. I'd really like us to maintain a good working relationship. Can we talk about other ways we can handle problems when they come up?"

In my experience, this kind of response usually meets with some embarrassment and regret. Move on to something else quickly enough to allow your "critic" to save face. If you've received some kind of apology, and most likely you will, then you've created a more respectful and equitable relationship.

If your "critic" reacts defensively, then it's probably time to talk to people in the firm with whom you've forged alliances. If they justify his behavior and criticize your reaction, you may want to consider working elsewhere. Most likely, other lawyers will want to support you. But don't expect them to be openly critical of their colleagues. They'll probably prefer to handle things behind the scenes.


It's easiest to practice self-advocacy when you're optimistic and self-confident. By optimism, I mean that you're able to generate possible solutions to a problem, rather than resigning yourself to helplessness. Colleagues, mentors and coaches can help you generate solutions when you're having difficulty doing so on your own.

Self-confidence comes from a clear recognition of your talents, gifts and skills. Make a list of all the assets you bring to your firm and your profession and update this regularly. If you're a young associate this might be difficult. A coach can help you accomplish this.

Your confidence will increase each time you successfully handle conflict. Avoidance, on the other hand, is not confidence-building. Doing something difficult and anxiety-producing strengthens your ability to handle tough situations -- with your cases or with your colleagues.



The legal field needs to hear your strategies. If you are willing to share them, I'd love to hear from you. You can send e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Lawyers Life Coach is dedicated to sharing practical strategies that lawyers are already using -- from something as small as hiring a virtual assistant to something as large as leaving the profession.

Of course, I will only share your strategies and any identifying information with your permission.


BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the MentorCoach Program™.


NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.



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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
Phone: (301) 578-8686
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© 2000 — 2008 Ellen Ostrow. All rights reserved.

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