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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