Playing and getting played by office politics.

I’m a second-year associate at a big-ish law firm (~80 lawyers). I mostly go along, doing my work and going home at the end of the day. I don’t really have any interest in socializing after-hours with my co-workers. I do my job, bill my hours, and go home.

I’ve suffered from severe depression for the last year. My mentor, the head of the firm, the HR director, the head of the litigation department, the assignment coordinator…they all know about it. They’ve been pretty good about accommodating me. They go on and on (making the right lawyer noises to avoid an ADA lawsuit, but some of it sounds sincere) about wanting me to succeed here.

But I’ve sensed, especially in the last 6 months, that there are some of us associates (and even partners) who are among “the chosen,” and some who are not.

The favorites (primarily men, but a couple of women) are the ones who kill themselves to work however many hours they’re asked to, and who suck up to the right people.

The un-favorites are those of us who refuse work when we’re busy, insist on making time for a home life, and who are focused on doing our jobs well and going home. Of course, there are other reasons thrown in here, too. One woman is considered “too sexy.” I’m “not interested enough” (meaning, I’m quiet and focused and I have a life outside the office). The same is true for another woman associate.

The “too sexy” associate is hooked into office gossip (stuff I am oblivious to). I recently learned that at the partners’ meetings, they’ve actually gone so far as to look at lists of associates and pick out the ones who are “never gonna make it.” Based on the names I’ve heard, this is totally based on attitude and politics, not performance or skill. I am probably on this list. My mentor (also the hiring partner, and a mover and a shaker here) let it slip on Friday that she thinks it’s time to “have the talk” about “whether this is the right place for me.”

At another meeting, they chose which associates should be having lunches with the summer associates and candidates for associate jobs. Some of us go into the “no way” category. I suspect I am one of them, although it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I do a lot to get to know the summer associates, and I take them out and spend a lot of time talking to them on a one-on-one basis. I know that they’ve reported this as a good thing to the coordinators of the program…and yet I remain on the “no way” list. I am one of only a couple of associates who are “quarantined from contact” with possible hires…even though I apparently make a good impression and have only positive things to say about this place.

All of this has me really annoyed. Is it this way at all offices? Is this a trait peculiar to law firms? Am I really going to be unable to find a job where doing (by all accounts) excellent work, working a regular full-time schedule, and going home are enough to succeed? Or is it generally a requirement to get involved in “office politics”?

Because, frankly, I don’t care who sleeps with who. I don’t care that my “public image” with the partners is “boring.” I don’t care about being buddies with the “cool” lawyers, and I don’t care to know what “dorky” people are the subject of jokes around the firm. I look around at the people who are considered the “stars” and I know that I never, ever want to be like them. They’re primarily jerks and all are married to their jobs.

I want to do my job well, get paid, and go home to my real life. Which has nothing to do with my job.

Another thought on my mind: I’m not planning on staying more than another year. I know my “boring” image has been complained of by partners who feel this translates into being “uninterested in the work and the clients.”

I know that one of the guys who was identified as “never gonna make it” got fired last year (though they said he chose to leave). He got a severance package of $60,000. I know he was fired because he started mouthing off to partners. I also know they negotiated some kind of deal where the firm never told anyone he was fired, and that they gave him positive reviews. I have heard that they did this because he was black and were afraid of a lawsuit.

Now I’m sorely tempted to try for the same thing. I know they’re afraid I’ll sue them under the ADA, because I’ve got a lot of ammo saved up from various things that people with loose lips have said to me about accommodating my illness. I think I could get the same deal–maybe more, because there aren’t any deficiencies in my work, as there were with the other guy. $60K would come in handy. I’m deeply in debt, and I want to go back to school.

So I guess I have two questions:

  1. are all jobs like this?

  2. should I try to get fired?

Every job that I’ve worked out.

No. It’s dishonest, unethical, and could massively backfire.

True, not true, true.

Well, it’s kind of unethical, but these things are very relative.

Ok, it’s completely unethical, but they have it coming.

OK, so my only recourse is to become self-employed.

As for “trying to get fired,” I’m not planning to do anything I wouldn’t ordinarily do. The plan would be to hang around here until I was asked to leave. They ask you to leave at a certain point after they decide you’ll never make partner. I suspect that I might be asked in a year. I have no interest in making partner and have not done the suck-up stuff that you have to do for that.

I am emphatically not going to try stunts like mouthing off, throwing a drink in the hiring partner’s face at the Christmas party, messing up on projects, or tearing off my shirt to reveal the silver pastie on my right boob during the next all-attorney lunch.

I would simply “outstay my welcome.”

You’re a lawyer. I’m no expert, but I know that the law is a huge field and that there are vast number of different career paths you can take. If you know your current job isn’t going to last for more then a year or so, now would be a great time to start talking with a career counselor and looking at where you want to go. From personal experience, planning positive changes like that (and following through with them) can be a very uplifting experience.

I meant, to avoid office politics, which I think are stupid and a waste of everyone’s time. You all said that all your jobs were dominated by office politics too.

I worked at a small family-owned business for several years while in college. There was definitely a “junior high” aspect to it–some people liked each other, others didn’t. For example, Brad and Deb hated each other, but I was friends with both of them. Everyone thought Michael was weird, but harmless–except for me, because we butted heads regularly. And the people in the family, including their son, who was supposedly just a regular employee, had more say and got more perks than the rest of us.

But, if you did your work well, that was all that really mattered re: your advancement. I did good work for them, and got promotions and raises. The boss liked me for that reason. There wasn’t any B.S. I didn’t have to kiss his ass, in addition to doing good work, in order to succeed. There were no secret requirements for promotion (like, “we say you only have to bill 150 hours per month, but if you want to make partner, you really have to bill 200”). I didn’t have to attend happy hours or be a sycophant in order to get ahead.

I’m wondering if that was an anomaly.

Every office has a culture. To fit into some offices, you need to be an overachiever. To fit into some offices, you need to keep your head down and stay the course.

I doubt it’s possible to entirely avoid office politics anywhere, although the nature of those politics will change. When I worked for a state university, people were generally not rewarded for going the extra mile, and you were forbidden from doing overtime or working through lunches and breaks. When I’ve worked elsewhere, lip service was paid to the concept of breaks, but you’d be looked at funny if you took them.

You just need to find a culture that you’re happy with. Your current office is obviously not that place. Regardless of the quality of your reasons, you’re apparently not demonstrating the kind of personality that gets rewarded.

Your best bet, from my experience, may be to find a job in a government office, if that’s an option. There will be politics, don’t get me wrong, but they may be a flavor more to your liking.

Office politics are impossible to avoid completely, but the level varies a lot from company to company. Some firms have a “corporate culture” of unpaid overtime and conformist bullshit. Others do not.

I believe this kind of problem is worse in the US than in Europe. The employment laws over here make it very difficult to sack anyone, so people don’t have to toe the line as much to stay in a job.

I count myself as pretty lucky. I see the office politics going on, mainly between the middle-managers, but it doesn’t effect me that much. I work in a small team, we get on well, and are happy to help each other as needed. We tend to close ranks when other people try to put pressure on us. About once or twice a year I get asked to work overtime, and I make sure my boss is uncomfortable asking me. I make sure he knows what an inconvenience it is to me, and make him justify at length why its necessary. I can do this safe in the knowledge that it won’t be held against me.

I work in a sales office. When I started here, we had 20+ salespeople all under the same roof. Office politics were rampant. Morale was low. Productivity was low.

Through attrition, we are now whittled down to less than ten. There are no office politics, and these 10- salespeople are pulling in the same amount of sales dollars as the 20+ salespeople were. This means better working conditions, bigger commission checks, and happier people. We are also working as a cohesive unit, dammit!

I rarely participate in office politics, but I do study them. I bet that one could almost draw a geometric shape to represent an office full of people. As if, once you go over seven people, the geometric shape cannot contain that many people, and two smaller groups form. So, in an office of 80+ people, you could have some 11 different groups bouncing off each other at the same time.

Just a theory.

Thank you for the reminder. You’re right: I’ve been able to handle some form of office politics in the past. Lots of forms, really. This place (like most big law firms, really) just is a lousy fit for me.

In every other job I’ve ever had, working hard, doing great work, and avoiding gossip and intrigues have been considered plusses. Here, it’s all about who likes you and who has the best gossip. A lot of it is very vicious.

That’s lawyers for you, I guess.

That leaves one other question: do I wait to be fired? On the negative side, it’s getting fired, and I’d have to wait for them to act. On the plus side, it’s a lot of money, which I need, and since I’m anticipating it, I could already be well into my job search (or even have something lined up) by then.

Has anyone else out there done this–hung around just for the severance package?