Keep Your Distance

It seems as though far too many mothers and fathers these days want to be best friends with their children rather than parents. As a result, children are unrulier, lazier and more disrespectful toward authority. Once parents have lost the respect of their children, it's hard to get it back--the vital wall between parent and child has crumbled.

Likewise, lawyers can't be "best friends" with their colleagues if they hope to do their job well. They need to be the "parent" and that means maintaining a solid wall between themselves and their colleagues.

This is particularly challenging for small-department lawyers. We face a daily crush of hallway discourse and open door visits from colleagues, many of whom want to vent or engage in idle chitchat. We are invited to weekend barbecues or offered a slice of cake at birthday cubicle-celebrations. Being one of the team is a great feeling, but be careful--diving into the office pool and splashing around with the crowd is a good way to drown one's career. The lawyer needs to be the lifeguard, not the guy who does the best cannonball.

I am often asked to go socially drinking with colleagues and virtually never do. Why play with fire? Even if you're firmly in control, you risk getting caught up in your colleagues' drunken misdeeds, from alcohol-fueled gossip to bar brawls. So I only drink with colleagues when it's truly job-related (e.g., the board of directors invites me out for cocktails or there's an official corporate event like a farewell party for a CFO). In any case, you should act no differently at corporate functions than you would in the office: No chumminess allowed.

Even sober gabfests can be damaging. Lawyers should keep all personal conversations short and somewhat formal to avoid slipping into water cooler-gossip mode and inadvertently revealing too much personal information or offending someone. No one needs to hear about your political beliefs or how you waxed your back hair at a spa in Hawaii.

Too much personal time spent with a colleague can even make you the subject of office gossip. One female attorney I know had to endure ridicule and an ethics inquiry after befriending a male employee. What began as hallway chitchat shifted into long lunches and weekend activities. It didn't matter whether they were having an affair or not, everyone thought they were.

When colleagues get too friendly with the in-house counsel, they lose that healthy sense of respect and fear for the lawyer's role as a watchdog. And when office behavior becomes too relaxed, the company suffers. Office friends also tend to prod you for confidential information or expect favoritism--and if you succumb, your role as an objective, impartial counselor is compromised.

Lawyers are supposed to be the rock that everyone in the office can rely upon for preeminent professionalism. If that position is compromised, all office behavior can start to unravel. Once your colleagues see a chink in your attorney armor, they go for blood. Like rebellious children, they see how far they can push you from your parental role. If the lawyer sinks to a lower level, it legitimizes their own inappropriate behavior.

The flip side is that small-department lawyers must still find ways to be personable, trusted and well-liked. There's a delicate balance between falling into the "chumminess trap" and coming off like the secret police.

Maintaining a healthy "parent-child" wall between you and your colleagues will make for a successful career--just don't tell your colleagues you sometimes have to think of them as children.

Contributor

Michael Baroni

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