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Working With John Q Satan, Esq
by Sheila Nelson
"If You Work For John Q. Satan, Esq., Consider an Excorsim," was originally printed in the Illinois Legal Times. Sheila Nielsen is nationally recognized career counselor specializing in attorneys. Both a lawyer and a social worker by training, Nielsen obtained her law degree from Temple University and her Social Work degree from Bryn Mawr.
People, companies and situations described in this article represent composites rather than actual individuals, businesses or events. All names have been changed.
"I have the boss from Hell," she told me when we first met. When she described her situation, I had to agree. For many years Darcy had been a favorite of the partner with whom she worked. Ed was a tight-lipped, tense man whose idea of a compliment was a terse note left on her desk saying "not bad," or even "OK," if he was feeling especially effusive.
Although he seemed noncommittal about Darcy’s work, she believed Ed did appreciate her substantial efforts on his behalf. When Ed did not like someone, he made certain the whole office knew. He was merciless in his verbal assaults, often driving from the firm those who piqued his wrath.
In Ed’s duchy no one had lasted as long as Darcy had with "most favored person" status. She had worked with him for nearly 14 years. Over that time, the sense of being Ed’s chosen one sustained her. Darcy was Ed’s right-hand person and confidante. At her firm, only she knew about his drinking problem he hid from others. For her part, Darcy worked long hours with the utmost loyalty to her partner.
A single woman with no children, Darcy had devoted her life to her work. She loved children and had always envisioned herself as a mother. For years she had eagerly anticipated finding Mr. Right, but he never arrived. She thought maybe she had missed out on married life because she worked so hard. She had a stunted social life. And even though Darcy made junior partner at her firm, she was not especially proud of that trophy. She knew that the only reason she had made partner at all was because Ed brought in the work.
Many times Darcy considered leaving the firm, but three things stopped her from going. She lacked portable practice. Her practice area was not in great demand. And if Ed ever found out she was even considering a move, he would feel betrayed and fire her. He had done that to other people, and she was sure he would do it to her. I asked Darcy whether getting fired might be exactly what she needed to get out of this debilitating relationship. It sounded like a bad marriage between an abusive husband and a co-dependent wife.
Darcy confessed that there were days she wished she could abandon her career in law altogether for something more personally rewarding. As we were working on this knotty problem in our counseling sessions, the bomb dropped at work. Ed’s disaffection began with a simple, seemingly petty remark. "You know, Darcy, you are getting pretty cozy with my client. Don’t forget who brought John to this firm." John, one of Ed’s clients, had taken to calling Darcy directly. John told Darcy he knew she, and not Ed, did most of the work for John’s company and that none of his company or colleagues had ever liked Ed. So they preferred to work directly with her.
Darcy decided to take a more direct role with John because Ed was very busy. Darcy never intended to steal the client from Ed, but Ed found out about the "secret liaison" going on behind his back and his paranoia took over. He refused to meet with Darcy or talk to her. He took to throwing cases on her desk with cryptic instructions. Darcy tried to talk with Ed about the misunderstanding. Still he ignored her. She went to the other partners to explain the problem. They were sympathetic and offered suggestions for talking with Ed, which she tried. Darcy was not surprised that none of these suggestions worked. She knew Ed too well.
By this time, Ed refused to even acknowledge Darcy’s presence. Finally Darcy responded to Ed’s campaign of silence by returning all of the cases he had given her with the following note stapled to the file: "I’ll work your cases again when you are ready to talk to me and treat me with respect." Ed’s response was to reassign all of Darcy’s cases to various junior associates.
In this battle of will, Ed had the upper hand. He had the clients in his pocket and a stable of eager associates to work the business. The sad thing was that even though the partners at the firm must have known that Ed was seriously troubled and that he was a destructive to their firm as well as to Darcy and himself, they reacted as if they were powerless to intervene. In fact, Ed’s partners were the only people with any leverage in this dysfunctional situation. Instead of maintaining silence, the partners should have mustered the courage to speak up and insist that Ed get help. Instead, they told Darcy to try harder to make up with Ed.
In our sessions we looked at what was happening and what Darcy’s options might be. Darcy felt "oddly euphoric" about standing up for herself, like an abused wife who finally decided she has had enough. Darcy was proud of herself for asserting her needs even though she would probably lose her job. She was rebuilding her self-respect and wasn’t about to go crawling back to Ed to make up with him. Darcy had written her personal declaration of independence, which was the psychologically healthy thing to do.
As we worked through her career options, Darcy expressed relief and excitement whenever she thought about leaving the law firm. To her, a career in the law had become synonymous with low self esteem and emotional abuse. She wanted to get out. She needed a career path that gave her room for a more balanced life, in which she could bring out her nurturing side, build her self-esteem and get closer to colleagues or clients.
Today, Darcy is thrilled to have switched from law to education. She had begun her student teaching. Now that she had entered a new professional world, she is able to express parts of herself that were dormant or beaten down when she worked as a lawyer. For Darcy, leaving the law was the right move.