Advice

How to survive the supervisor from hell

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A junior solicitor reflects on the sadism lurking within City law firms

You’ve heard the rumours. You’ve listened to the tales of unspeakable cruelty. You’ve imagined how you would cope if you too were subjected to the same sadism and you’ve thanked your lucky stars that to date you’ve managed to escape it.

Then, one slow afternoon, the email from human resources informing you which department you’ll be going to next in your training contract lands in your inbox. You open it, you read it, and your soul dies slowly inside you.

You have been allocated to the supervisor from hell.

Most law firms have them. Within the collective experience of most bodies of trainee solicitors, there is usually at least one supervisor renowned for being more despicable than the rest. I’m currently a junior associate at a mid-sized City law firm. But in the second seat of my training contract at my shop, I had the pleasure of being assigned to just such a supervisor.

An ambitious thirty-something quite recently made up, this alpha male was a leader in his field. But about this paragon of legal excellence there brewed an atmosphere of constant stress and tension so extreme that he was unapproachable by everyone but the most confident fellow partner.

While my other supervisors were firm yet reasonable, this one delighted in shouting at me, in swearing at me and in routinely setting me purposefully impossible tasks. Predictably, my end of seat review recorded in no uncertain terms that I had failed to meet the standards he required. “I just wouldn’t hire you,” he concluded, as if I had overseen a genocide.

In my experience, the supervisor from hell is identifiable by certain characteristics.

They are prone to unleash the most horrific reprimands for the merest infractions. Whether it’s a shouty dressing-down or some very carefully aimed words designed to make your spirit run cold, the supervisor from hell is expert in making you feel like the hopeless and incompetent pond life he or she probably believes you are. I’ve heard of one monster dispatching their hapless trainee to a landfill site to try to recover an original document the terrified junior was forced to admit they thought they had lost.

They are likely to insist on almost unattainably high standards. Frustratingly, many of them practise what they preach. The daemonic partner who will call you the instant after you send out a carefully constructed email to tell you firmly that you should not have used a semi-colon in the second line is likely not to have made a typo herself in the past 15 years.

Above all, they are distinguished by their unreasonableness. Motivated on the face of it by the need to turn you into a top-drawer lawyer but in fact impelled by an unhinged anxiety that if they change the way they are then something bad might happen. After all, they were treated like shit when they were trainees so now it’s your turn.

While abused associates can simply leave, as a trainee you’re stuck there, for six months, or until you suffer a breakdown (whichever happens first). But all is not lost. Having lived under the reign of a supervisor from hell, I want to set out a few important pieces of advice to help you survive.

1. Time is their most valuable commodity

Confronting a skull-crunching to-do list of difficult tasks and competing priorities everyday when they walk into the office, what most partners value most is time. Seeing others squander it really grinds their gears.

Use as little of your supervisor from hell’s time as possible. Exhaust all other avenues by trying to solve problems yourself first. Speak to friendly associates who might be willing to point you in the right direction. Make what you say quick and punchy and make it clear that you have done everything you can before you spoke to them.

2. Don’t let the bastard grind you down

The supervisor from hell will expect you to be the epitome of professionalism for whom high standards come before anything else. They will feel they simply don’t have the time to deal with anything which stands in the way of them doing their job, including trainee emotions. Far from helping them to understand you as a person and what you’re going through, displays of emotion will make them lose respect for you.

I am very aware of how unnecessarily stressful law firms can be. Obviously if there really is a problem, then there will always come a point when it will be necessary to inform HR, another partner or another authority of what’s been going on (though I appreciate it can be difficult to know when this point arrives).

But if you can stand it, don your best expression of po-faced resilience as the little Hitler shouts at you and throws back your draft, seared with red pen, in a dog-eared heap on to your desk. Deprive them of the satisfaction of seeing that their tyrannical ways have affected you. If you’re feeling really brave (and judge that doing so won’t cause a nuclear apocalypse), stand your ground with a calmly spoken defence of yourself. They may even respect you for it. Then go and cry in the toilets.

3. Try to anticipate what they will want and stay one step ahead

The supervisor from hell will have a very particular way of doing things. From the arrangement of their files, to the format of their emails, from the manner of addressing clients, to the temperature of their morning peppermint tea, everything must be done just so. What’s more, they simply will not be able to understand, far less tolerate, any shortcomings in subject knowledge in people they expect to have it. My own supervisor from hell would frequently put his head in his hands as I yet again failed one of his daily “little tests”.

Try to ask a friendly associate, secretary or anyone else who knows their ways for how they like things to be done and stick to it. If everyone is hostile to you, try to observe him or her discreetly without getting barked at for staring at them. Woe betide an ignorant new recruit who steps out of line and disrupts the carefully cultivated system.

4. They might be nice socially

Supervisors from hell often have split personalities: they have their “work” selves and then their “outside work” selves. Many might be fundamentally good people beyond the office bubble. But be wary of warm shows of sociability. Most senior lawyers know turning on the charm and acting like a fun human being is an essential weapon in the constant war for clients.

I have known senior supervisors to be drunk, care-free, friendly and full of boundless fun at work drinks one night then, following transformation worthy of Dr Jekyll, a devil incarnate embodiment of misanthropy and workaholism early the next morning.

You have been warned. Assume they will have returned to prisoner-shooting mode as soon as you cross the office threshold and you can’t go too far wrong. (Actually, you very much can…)

5. Learn from it

As alarming as this article might sound, in my four-and-a-half years at a City law firm both as a trainee and associate, I have found that most supervisors are at least reasonable. Supervisors from hell are the exception.

As you sob into your pillow every night, dreading the return to work the next morning, it might seem like your career has been destroyed before it’s even begun and that nothing good can come of it.

But don’t give up hope. In most cases, you can have a bad seat and still qualify at your firm (if you want to). This might be the Stockholm Syndrome talking after my own experience of a supervisor from hell, but if you emerge from captivity alive (if a little mentally scarred), you’re likely to be stronger, more resilient and able to handle almost anything you face after that.

So eyes down, carry on and if you’re that way inclined keep telling them to go and fuck themselves in your head.


Unnamed Lawyer is a non-law graduate from a Russell Group university, who crossed over to the dark side and converted to law. He is now an associate in the commercial property department of a City law firm.

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63 Comments

Broflake

Sounds like the grumblings of a Beta. You’re a lawyer, use of a semi-colon should be fairly easy to grasp. Surprised he didn’t remove the belt and give you a good 360 degree arse whipping.. Harsh boundaries.

(22)(53)

Anonymous

Describe how a semi-colon should be used/is in practice by lawyers; that would be really helpful.

(5)(2)

Titus Trombolus

By having at least a secondary school level of education?

(12)(5)

Sir Righteous of Rightgate

No idea why people are disliking the above. If you seriously do not know how to use a semi-colon, which should have been picked up at secondary school, then you are absolutely in the wrong profession.

Time to grow up, you bunch of buffoons.

(6)(3)

Nursing your semi

Semicolons are useful in contracts. Otherwise they’re wank. Just start a new sentence and stop being pretentious.

(3)(0)

The voice of reason

Or you just need to wise-up and accept that people make mistakes. Not everyone can be as perfect as you. Give them a chance.

(0)(0)

Senior Playa

When communicating with attractive trainees:

😉

(16)(0)

Finbar

I think you mean either:
1. should be/is used in practice; or
2. should be used/is used in practice.

It would appear that you have more fundamental writing issues to concern yourself with.

(7)(1)

Grammar police

I think you mean “with which to concern yourself”.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

Considering we just appealed a case where a Recorder was stumbling on the conjunctive and disjunctive nature of semi-colons and colons in the CPR, I would think it would be a good idea to learn the correct implementation of punctuation.

(7)(4)

Anonymous

Sounds like the comment of a first year law student who has watched too much Suits.

(13)(3)

Anonymous

If you get abuse, depending how bad it is you either tell the abuser ‘this is not professional’ or you simply tell them to fuck off. Remember they cannot really sack you as a trainee. If the abuse is really awful just use the race card if you can. Remember, nobody wants to be struck off.

(10)(9)

Anonymous

demonstrates why lawyers need to get a life

(5)(0)

Anonymous

If it looks like a snowflake and sounds like a snowflake, it probably is a snowflake

(3)(7)

Ms Peddant

The second sentence of the first comment should have read: “You’re a lawyer; use of a semi-colon should be fairly easy to grasp.”

(0)(2)

Mr Peddant

Not necessarily..

(2)(1)

Anonymous

Based on experience at a would be top firm almost 30 years ago-

1. Be prepared to answer right back and defend yourself.

2. Consider whether you need to keep copies of this supervisor’s memos, e-mails etc. One such memo helped me negotiate a good termination payment.

(2)(0)

The Trainee

I went on what the legal directories refer to as a devastating drafting of documents. I devastated, I drafted, and I got bloody satisfaction. I’ve drafted a hell of a lot of documents to get to this point, but I only have one more, left the last one, the one I’m drafting right now, the only one left. When I put down my pen, I am going to impress my supervisor from hell.

(4)(2)

Anonymous

How, by any stretch of the imagination, is this acceptable? Individuals of this ilk are nothing more than unpleasant little bullies, invariably insecure. Firms are well aware of who is unpleasant and behaves in this manner, yet they do nothing about it nor support those who have to work with them – it speaks volumes of firms that fail to address behavioural issues. Shame on them.f this ilk

(35)(2)

JD Partner

I’m not pleased you published this, but glad you kept out the bit about the chains and whips I used on you.

(6)(2)

Anonymous

I don’t suppose there’s any chance that other such supervisors may actually be different from yours?

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Does a pink shirt work with a black suit?

(1)(0)

Gok Wan

Only with a black tie

(1)(0)

Sartorial Sam

A black suit you say?

LOL.

(8)(0)

Tim NicebutDim

Just make sure you wear brown shoes as well. Oh, and ensure that the black tie is also skinny.

(29)(0)

Anonymous

Ideally it should be one of those shirts with a colour that is more pale than the tone of the shirt itself. That is a classy look.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

I once had a horrible supervisor (senior associate), similar to this. At first I lapped it up like a good dog but eventually I had enough. It turned into somewhat of a war and at times it was petty. I missed all of her deadlines unless given to me in writing (“you didn’t make it clear that it had to be completed by 10am today”). When I was given a deadline I would sometimes make them with a shoddy piece of work, or I would request multiple extensions owing to a heavy workload. Eventually she grew sick of it and started giving work out to other trainees and not bothering with me. By the end of the seat we were not even speaking to each other.

I am now happily qualified for nearly 4 years in a much nicer team at the same firm. I slander her a lot and will continue to do so until she is gone. She has a pretty bad reputation and still hasn’t made partner.

(36)(7)

Anonymous

This is terrible advice. I think you are lucky to have had a job offer. In most firms you will have achieved a reputation as an awkward and lazy trainee.

(14)(11)

Anonymous

Except I did 3 other seats with supervisors who could be described as human, during which I was far from awkward or lazy.

Obviously I am reasonably subtle in the way that I slander and I am careful to tell the tale of a trainee being bullied, as opposed to me playing my games. The waters were pretty muddy and to many I came across as the victim, and she came across as unreasonable and manipulative.

I certainly had the last laugh, and continue to do so.

(11)(9)

Broflake

Want some fish with that chip?

(21)(0)

Anonymous

Quite enjoy my chips, gives me somewhere to channel the anger.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

It’s still an extremely risky approach. Supervisors talk; and heavily oversubscribed departments often end up looking across evaluations from the entirety of applicants’ training contracts when making decisions.

(10)(1)

Anonymous

I left my training contract because I was bullied so much by my supervisor.

Never went back. Will always regret that decision to run and not fight.

(20)(1)

Survivor

Mistreatment doesn’t end at trainee level! If it was affecting your mental health, you probably made the right decision.

(12)(1)

Anonymous

Just because the supervisors’ partner is shagging someone else, their social life is non-existent and are overcome by their own inadequacies, don’t mean it should be tolerated in the workplace. If trainees put up with it (they probably will while there are limited places available at the prestigious law firms) then that’s the deal and nothing will change. Be polite but stand your ground. Personally I wish the bully a coronary.

(8)(0)

Somebody who knows

Quite right. Stand your ground. Then when that sweet NQ money is coming in prepare to use it in a thoughtful way, if you know what I’m saying

(1)(2)

Baffled

I’m not sure that I do know what you are saying, Oh Wise One

(3)(0)

Somebody who knows

Hitman obviously.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Oh, that old trick

(2)(0)

Anonymous

This quote applies to most of these types…

“In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is…in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.”

― Theodore Dalrymple

(6)(0)

Anonymous

But substitute law firms for communist societies, and “bs rants from supervisor from hell” with communist propaganda.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I didn’t read the quote as it was a bit long, but, a nice Labour government is genuinely what this country needs.

(6)(6)

Anonymous

Sounds a bit like political correctness et all.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

I don’t really understand how anybody can benefit from survival tips from somebody who was told in no uncertain terms that they had failed to meet the standards their supervisor required.

Up next: How sit through an interview and not get offered the job.

(1)(6)

Anonymous

A joint article by Alex, Katie and Tom on their TC and pupillage interview experiences presumably?

(5)(0)

Anonymous

MC firms are still the place to train. Period.

(2)(4)

Anonymous

What do you mean? If you are on your period I would avoid work altogether.

(3)(4)

Anonymous

I worked for two nightmares before and didn’t respect them, just hugely disliked them. The fact that someone likes to bully you shows what a complete and utter twat they are. Even if they can bully you, at least you know you’re a better person – which is worth much more.

(6)(0)

Cockney Geezer

A word to the wise in your daffodil shell likes. A few monkey wrenches downa dark alley way after hours, sorts out ham shankers like this gaffer in a jiffy.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

I’ve seen bullying managers in other industries square up against those they thought they could intimidate, on various occasions. It didn’t go quite so well when a certain “junior” happened to be an amateur boxer..
That was a truly funny day.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

I had a similar experience to this with an ambitious senior associate. For example, being sworn at for missing a minor formatting error and not allowed to eat dinner amongst a 20 hour day. They’d had previous complaints against them made to HR. They lived their life in a constant state of stress and when they ran out things to stress about, would create them and direct them at me.

I toughed it out but I felt like I was in an abusive relationship for 6 months. Luckily the rest of my training contract was supervised by nicer people.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Why didn’t you eat when you needed to? What would have happened if you had eaten over that 20 hour period? Reported you to hr? Hardly – because it’s indefensible.

(9)(2)

Anonymous

I had a supervisor from hell. He was rude, menacing and wouldn’t let me type because he didn’t like the noise. In short, he was a bellend. My advice: be brave and call them out. Take copious records of what you’ve done well, challenge any vague feedback about not meeting standards and remember that a bully will often back down pretty sharpish when their crap behaviour is recognised. Don’t be a doormat.

(16)(0)

Anonymous

I had a supervisor who hated me and said I wasn’t up to the job. On my appraisal I saved all the positive emails I’d received from the head of the department who thought otherwise and made sure he also attended. That shut up said sadist supervisor.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

We all have a had a superviser like that, and I really don’t buy this bullshit about having to lap it up.

I think its a massive misconception that a TC is a 2 year interview, it isn’t, it’s four 6 month interviews. If one supervisor doesn’t like you, it doesn’t matter. If one team like you and like your work they are not going to give a shit what some partner in another team thought of you.

(4)(2)

Anonymous

Well said. And for those who want to qualify into corporate-ish areas, getting an NQ position at another firm is a walk in the park compared to the training contract process. Qualifying at your firm shouldn’t be the be all and end all, and certainly isn’t worth the sleepless nights and losing your dignity over.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

What is being described is bullying. I’ve been through this (albeit in a legal aid firm – it is not just city firms). I ended up ill before I qualified. These people helped http://www.lawcare.org.uk/helpline

(6)(0)

zan

As a GDL student I am dreading actually getting a job lol. I hate b*tches and ba*tards and there seems to be a lot of them in the legal profession. The first few posts on this thread illustrate the fact that people can’t help being critical of others for ANY reason. In my opinion people have a strange perception that you need to be perfect in every way in order to be considered adequate to do the job. I believe this to be BS. Just watching the first part of the Supreme Court case of Robinson today was eye opening. The QC from Doughty Street came out with a couple of corkers and to add to that he was reading out a poorly worded proposition (by his own admission). So my point is that a semicolon or a comma makes no real difference in terms of the big picture surely? So stop with the character assassination. The problem is that there are not enough jobs to go round which fuels the cut throat and horrible treatment from peers. If I hated my supervisor that much I would get my coat on!

(5)(4)

Anonymous

I wish Legal Cheek would stick to news and features about the Bar.

This dull account of a nasty boss could be written about every other employer in the country. No particular link to law at all. Law firms are just factories, much like call centres. But with stupider employees.

(0)(7)

Anonymous

She was the most vulgar woman. Every day she would come in stinking like an ashtray. She had this thing where she would walk up close to me after her morning coffee, open her mouth and breathe on me. It was always a putrid mix of coffee and cigarettes. She would then say “wake up and smell the coffee” before bursting out into a horrible cackle. Disgusting.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

That sounds mildly disturbing. Did she enter your personal space in any other ways too?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

(0)(0)

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