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Emotional Violence

There is much violence in our world, from terrorism to violent crimes and many things in-between. There is also an internal violence threatening all too many of today’s law firms. It is what I call emotional violence.

When emotional violence exists within an office, all employees suffer its toxic, negative and lasting effects. Emotional violence saddens, angers, embarrasses, shocks and hurts its victims. It weakens and destroys office morale, productivity, ladders of success and, many times, entire careers. The types and size of destructive paths left by emotional violence are endless and this small column can merely attempt to touch the tip of this vicious iceberg.

Defining Emotional Violence
How do I define emotional violence? Like the word success, emotional violence should not be defined by a societal definition, but rather individually on a case-by-case basis. One of my definitions for it, however, may be: Any words, body language or other actions that persistently attack, demoralize, threaten, destroy or otherwise demean or bring ongoing discomfort and other negative effects to those subjected to such constant abuse.

Self Audit
Ask this questions about your firm:
•  Do we have attorneys or staff who speak in a demeaning fashion to others?
•  Does anyone in our office curse excessively?
•  Do attorneys or staff talk negatively about each other behind their backs?
•  Is there loud arguing on a regular basis?
•  Is there any employee who sexually harasses others?
•  Is distasteful, offensive humor tolerated?
•  Are there any employees that refuse to talk to and/or acknowledge each other?
•  Do we have any “professionals” whose emails to others could win the “I Make
Hitler Look Like a Good Guy” award?
•  How many chronic complainers do we have — ones who can’t be satisfied
unless they have something to gripe about?
•  Are there any just plain ol’ loud mouths around – good people perhaps, but
annoyingly loud?

Did you answer, “Yes” to any of these questions? If so and it’s not a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence, then your firm is indeed infected by emotional violence. Can you quantify the damages if these situations are allowed to exist? That can be difficult, but the harm done can be huge, hard to recover from and may bring about the ultimate downfall of a firm.

The Aftermath of Emotional Violence
Think I’m sounding like a drama queen about this emotional violence stuff? I wish that were the case; however, it is a rare week that passes when I don’t learn of yet another law firm war story about the fallout from unchecked emotional violence.

The injuries include:
1.   Low office morale/lousy attitudes
2.   Widespread reductions in productivity and work ethics
3.   Increased malpractice & grievance risks
4.   Costly, frequent employee turnover
5.   Unspoken permission for staff to act rudely and immaturely. just as they
observe attorneys doing
6.   The ongoing poisonous tension of unresolved disputes
7.   Fed up clients who take their business elsewhere
8.   Unmet personal and professional goals year after year
9.   Excessive daily stress from the tensions within
10. Vast amount of money and time spent on arguing one’s points over and over
ad nauseum (including the inability to obtain consensus among partners
regarding big firm decisions) and defending the firm over harassment suits,
malpractice claims and ethical grievances
11. The negating of time and money spent on marketing due to haphazard firm
leadership brought on by feuding partners.
12. Disrespect breeds disrespect.

Tracing the Roots of Emotional Violence
What causes emotional violence? A few of the typical causes are listed below:
1.   Please re-read #12 above
2.   Unhealthy stress levels from unrealistic caseloads, unresolved issues at
home or office, unhealthy life styles, dishonesty with ourselves and others, lack
of exercise, poor time management skills, living lives that others expect us to
live rather than the one we really want to be living
3.   Low emotional IQ’s
4.   Immaturity including two-year-old-style temper tantrums
5.   Self-centeredness overload
6.   Substance abuse
7.   Depression
8.   Enablers at home and in the office
9.   Undeserved, self-imposed arrogance or holier-than-thou attitudes
10. Chaotic, chronically disorganized office management

Why Is Emotional Violence Allowed to Exist?
Again, the reasons are endless, but for starters:
•  We refuse to hold ourselves or others accountable for their negative actions or
•  Many of us avoid personal confrontations like the plague. It often seems easier
to stay angry than to put the energies and time into making amends and
changing our ways.
•  Personal insecurities which lead to “greater than thou” attitudes and actions.
•  Self-centered “I” or “me, me, me” vs. team-oriented “we” or “firm” mindsets
(e.g., my clients vs. our firm’s clients)
•  Some attorneys are just downright unprofessional and unethical.
•  We are too busy just trying to keep our heads above the water and swear we
have zero minutes to spare.
•  Attitudes such as “If I bury my head in the sand far enough or just ignore things
long enough, they will go away.”
•  Insensitivity to and disrespect for others’ feelings

Emotional Violence Prevention
There are, of course, no easy answers. Nor can I force anyone to make the required tough decisions that would forbid emotional violence from rearing its ugly head in their offices.

If I had a magical wand, however, I would use it to rid all firms of this dangerous and often unacknowledged threat. I say this because in all my years of working as a law firm management and planning strategist, I continue today to see the far-reaching damages caused by the failure of attorneys to take a stand against emotional violence and its many related allies.

Attorneys that have had the wisdom and courage to finally say “No More!” to emotional violence would never return to an environment where such tactics are allowed because the rewards have been too great, including (but far from complete!):
•  Employee turnover is greatly reduced and their productivity noticeably increase;
•  Office morale increases (almost instantly) and remains steady;
•  Stress levels among attorneys and staff decline;
•  Net profits grow (this means professional and financial goals are being
achieved); and
•  Client satisfaction spirals upward.

Law firms that allow such violence to continue in spite of its destructive nature have made a choice: Emotional & other demoralizing violence allowed here. Their unspoken message to attorneys, staff and clients would be something like this:
•  Enter at your own risk.
•  Stay if your self-esteem is low enough to tolerate the disrespect and a multitude
of negatives generated by the emotional violence allowed within.
•  No whining about the stress of our working environment; emotional violence and
dis-respectfulness tolerated

In Closing
As an attorney, I will and must always be mindful that one of the essentials of ongoing, successful lawyering is treating others respectfully – all others. Doing so is absolutely essential if we are to successfully climb our individual and professional ladders of success. And emotional violence has no place at that table.

Nancy Byerly Jones

Nancy Byerly Jones is enthusiastically and tirelessly dedicated to helping her clients build business success stories that last...and as a family law and workplace mediator, she is a passionate advocate for helping keep folks out of the courtroom and moving positively forward with their lives. Please visit her website (, on Twitter ( or on LinkedIn ( If you have any questions for Nancy, she’d enjoy hearing from you by email too:

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Filed Under: Practice Management

About the Author: Nancy Byerly Jones is enthusiastically and tirelessly dedicated to helping her clients build business success stories that last...and as a family law and workplace mediator, she is a passionate advocate for helping keep folks out of the courtroom and moving positively forward with their lives. Please visit her website (, on Twitter ( or on LinkedIn ( If you have any questions for Nancy, she’d enjoy hearing from you by email too:

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