Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 8, 2004
My boss is a nasty, sexist, arrogant man. How can I defend myself against his unreasonable behavior?
I hate my boss. He’s a horrible, old, mean, vain, nasty, sexist, arrogant man who yells and berates me and the rest of his staff constantly. I have a stomachache all day long while I’m working and often fantasize that he will die.
There’s no use in trying to talk to him about his behavior. Our office is his fiefdom and he would only blame me for being too sensitive. Loudly.
In any other circumstance, I would, of course, quit. But I am a first-year graduate from law school, he is a judge, and right now he pretty much owns me. If I quit, I have no doubt he would do what he could to make my life very difficult. He has contacts at the law firm that I plan on working at next year and despite his reputation for being a horrible person, I think there’s a big chance they would renege on my offer.
His influence is, of course, limited. I could always move to another city and start over. But I’ve worked so hard. I went to a really good law school. I have a very bright future, and this job is a big part of that. After all my hard work, it would be such a disappointment to have this conspicuous blemish to work around.
On the other hand, I don’t know how long I can control myself. I’m proud and I have tremendous difficulty not defending myself when he berates me. If I talk back too much I may just cross that line.
I have only five months left on my contract. I know that I should harden myself to it as best I can, do what I can to preserve my dignity, and just finish the year off. But I want to quit more than anything I can imagine. I really think I’m getting an ulcer from all the anxiety and stress.
I’ve been thinking about saying that I need to leave to care for an ailing family member (which I do have). He would yell at me and be horrible, but I don’t think he’d sabotage me in that situation. I hate putting my co-workers in the situation and I hate lying. But I don’t know that I can go on. Can you give me some advice?
A Very Desperate Serf
The law, it seems to me, is a tool for justice and fairness. To determine what is just and fair, we first determine what is true — we determine the facts. To this end, the law is written with precision. For instance, the law does not say that it shall be punishable by a term in prison not exceeding 25 years if anyone shall be found by a jury of his peers to be a moronic, incompetent motherfucker. We recognize that there are indeed moronic, incompetent motherfuckers out there, but it’s a subjective call. It’s hard to prove.
For that reason, a good lawyer focuses on the facts.
If the fact is that he’s disappointed with your work, and angry with you because you did not meet his expectations, then certain actions might flow from that. There would be nothing wrong in his telling you that. That much could be regarded as a fact: He had certain expectations that were not met, and as a result he had certain feelings.
However, if he deduces from his feelings that you are a backward jackass, and further deduces that since you are a backward jackass he is justified in abusing you, he’s not being a very good lawyer. He’s acting on flawed assumptions. The assumption that you are a backward jackass is subjective and unprovable; it’s no basis on which to act.
Habitual criminals and habitually abusive people have in common their disregard for the suffering of others, and their disregard for the facts. They justify their abuses on erroneous, misleading, meaningless or unprovable notions — that the victim was a lowdown, deserving scoundrel, for instance. Or that the victim was an incompetent and overly sensitive law clerk. If your boss believes you are a backward jackass and therefore it’s permissible to call you names, he’s got more in common with the criminal element than he does with an officer of the court.
So I think you should stand up to him, either in person or in writing, and argue the point that verbal abuse runs counter to the spirit of the law. If he blames you for being too sensitive, you need a counterargument. Ask him if slaves were being too sensitive. Ask him if Rosa Parks was too sensitive about sitting in the back of the bus. Ask him who determines how sensitive one should be. It’s the law that determines that, right? Find cases in which employees fought abusive bosses and ask him if they were too sensitive. Find cases in which sexist, abusive language was used as the cause for damages for, say, intentional infliction of emotional distress.
As to your concerns about the practical consequences of fighting back: The law is more than a career, it’s a calling. As a lawyer, you have a duty to uphold not just the law but what it stands for — shielding the weak from the predations of the strong.
I’m not suggesting you act recklessly, only that you place principle above personal convenience. There are things you can do to shield yourself. If you have contacts at the law firm you intend to work for, see if you can’t have a confidential communication in which you describe the instances of abuse. Ask if it’s well known that he engages in such behavior. Ask if such behavior is tolerated at the firm you plan to work for. Ask what the possible repercussions would be if you were to have a principled falling out with this judge. And think hard about whether you can in good conscience work for a firm whose culture condones such behavior as this judge is known for.
A lawyer needs a fighting spirit. If you’re going to use your training for good in the world, you have to learn to fight tyranny. What better time to begin fighting tyranny than right now?