“She stabbed me in the back!”

I’ve sometimes talked with lawyers (especially associates at large firms) who believe that another lawyer has stabbed them in the back: withheld critical information, misrepresented some aspect of the lawyer’s work to a more senior lawyer or client, or taken credit for the lawyer’s work.  These experiences are enraging and painful, and it’s easy for an affected lawyer to become suspicious of colleagues as a result.

Surviving and getting past such an event requires quick action.  First, the hard truth: whether the stabbing was intentional or purely accidental, your reputation is on the line and your response may well determine how others will see the situation.  Think quickly and dispassionately so you can find the best possible resolution.  Given the situation that currently exists (regardless of how it got there), what do you need to do to serve your client?  Take that step immediately and decisively.

Only when the client (internal or external) is fully protected can you return to the backstabbing itself.  The first step is to look unemotionally at what happened (ideally, with a mentor or unbiased assistant of some sort — certainly not someone who will agree with you regardless of the facts) and see whether this event really was a stab.  If you weren’t given important information, for example, look carefully to see what happened.  Perhaps the person who should have conveyed the information intentionally withheld it, or perhaps he simply forgot.  Is this event part of a pattern of behavior?  What does your intuition tell you?  How does your dispassionate observer see the situation?  Backstabbing does happen, but it’s critical to be sure that’s really what happened before you react.

Your next steps depend on whether what happened was done to you maliciously or negligently.  If malicious, consider (1) whether there’s any correction necessary and (2) what steps you can take in the future to avoid falling into a similar situation.  For instance, if someone assigned you work but left out a critical piece of information that caused you to present a memo, brief, or other product with a gaping hole in it, after you revise the work appropriately (to serve the client and to make the necessary correction), you might consider restating your assignments in a “confirmation” email to that person.  There’s rarely any point in confronting the malfeasor, unless you have incontrovertible evidence and are willing to pursue it to full resolution.  Generally speaking, your best response will be to note the problem, to work around it if possible, and to create avenues to avoid it in the future.

If the error was an accident (as, honestly, most are), consider whether a conversation could help to turn up a safety mechanism for the future.  Do you need to check in with that person on a regular basis to be sure you have the latest information, do you need to request to be a cc on all emails related to a particular case, or something along similar lines?  The trouble avoidance technique may be the same as it would be if the error were malicious, but conversation about an oversight is likely to be both productive and important to a good working relationship in the future.

In either event, if a third party (a partner or more senior associate, perhaps) is involved, you may need to have a conversation with her to clear the air.  Blaming the person who did wrong might feel good, but it won’t look good — so don’t do it.  Instead, address what happened on a factual basis and explain how you’re going to avoid a recurrence.

A word of warning: pay attention to your intuition.  A client once described to me a series of events that left him with an odd feeling about a coworker.  Although their interactions were professional and cordial, my client said that he always felt that his colleague would gladly “throw him under a bus” if need be to protect his own interest.  Unfortunately, his sense proved to be accurate; fortunately, my client had taken preventative steps to establish that he had provided certain information to that colleague.  Although 99.5% of the lawyers you work with are professionals with integrity, if your intuition signals that a colleague falls into the other .5%, take proactive measures right away.  Done with care, there’s no downside, and you’ll be protected if a problem ever arises.

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