Is Elena Kagan a Bullying Boss?

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan appears to have the necessary qualifications to be confirmed by the Senate to serve on America’s highest court, but working for her may not be the most enjoyable experience.

Kagan has built an accomplished legal and academic career and had a very successful run as Dean of Harvard Law School.  She currently holds the position of Solicitor General in President Obama’s administration.  I’d be very surprised if she encounters significant obstacles toward confirmation.

A “yeller”

But I couldn’t help zeroing in on a negative piece of NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg’s generally laudatory commentary today, indicating that Kagan may have something of a bullying boss quality to her — of the kiss up, kick down variety:

The cheerful, charming Kagan so beloved by the students was not always in evidence elsewhere. Secretaries and faculty members alike have stories of Kagan screaming at people, slamming doors and chewing out subordinates in public — a trait that she is said to have carried with her to her next job as solicitor general. She’s a “yeller,” concedes one of her friends with a wry smile.

Tushnet, one of her admirers, puts it this way: “Her weakness as dean was that she really didn’t like people to disagree with her. But that’s not something you can do at the Supreme Court.”

Harsher standards for women

If you’ve ever worked in hierarchical, professional workplaces where support staff and other subordinates are treated poorly by their bosses, this description of Kagan’s behavior may push some uncomfortable buttons.  It’s a common profile: High-achieving strivers who please those in positions to promote their careers, while being less than respectful toward those beneath them on the organizational chart.

That said, we shouldn’t make too much of this, for two reasons:  First, if yelling at subordinates was a disqualifying factor for lawyers seeking positions of power, well, we’d have a lot fewer attorneys in high places.  (I’ll let readers ponder the possibilities there…)

And perhaps more importantly, women often are judged more harshly than men when it comes to such behaviors.  Many an abrasive man can get away with it, while an abrasive women is more likely to be called a certain five-letter epithet.

Especially in Type A, top-down work settings, bullying-type behaviors should be taken into account when evaluating someone’s suitability for leadership roles, regardless of demographic characteristics.  It would be wrong, however, to deny that double standards often exist.

3 responses

  1. “I’ll let the readers ponder the possibilities…” I love it, David. I’ve worked with attorneys off and on for years, always as a “nobody” (at least that’s how it felt) compared with attorney “somebodies”. My masters are in biology and information sciences, not psychology, but I’ve been impressed by the extent of seemingly pathological, maladaptive, narcissistic and bullying behavior on the part of some rankist lawyers. I think Amy Bach (Ordinary Injustice)has a handle on the downsides of the go-along-get-along, closed-community cronyism and elitism that tends to get in the way of real, clear-eyed and innovative justice. I also think Paul Campos (Jurismania) has some good analyses of attorney maladaptive behavior, as does Thane Rosenbaum (The Myth of Moral Justice). I wouldn’t take any attorney bullying or yelling at me or being insentively rankist. I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. I filed a worker’s comp action against my employer, the judges of the county, for stress infliction and willful bullying behavior on the part of one of their employees, and won!
    As some of the most powerful members of our communities, attorneys need that much more to be leaders in modeling anti-rankist, anti-bullying and dignitarian behavior in the workplace.
    I hope Elana Kagan puts yours and the Namies’ blogs on her must reading list.

  2. “I’ll let the readers ponder the possibilities…” I love it, David. I’ve worked with attorneys off and on for years, always as a “nobody” (at least that’s how it felt) compared with attorney “somebodies”. My masters are in biology and information sciences, not psychology, but I’ve been impressed by the extent of seemingly pathological, maladaptive, narcissistic and bullying behavior on the part of some rankist lawyers. I think Amy Bach (Ordinary Injustice) has a handle on the downsides of the go-along-get-along, closed-community cronyism and elitism that tends to get in the way of real, clear-eyed and innovative justice. I also think Paul Campos (Jurismania) has some good analyses of attorney maladaptive behavior, as does Thane Rosenbaum (The Myth of Moral Justice). I wouldn’t take any attorney bullying or yelling at me or being insentively rankist. I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. I filed a worker’s comp action against my employer, the judges of the county, for stress infliction and willful bullying behavior on the part of one of their employees, and won!
    As some of the most powerful members of our communities, attorneys need that much more to be leaders in modeling anti-rankist, anti-bullying and dignitarian behavior in the workplace.
    I hope Elana Kagan puts yours and the Namies’ blogs on her must reading list.

    • Kim, thanks for those excellent comments and for putting lawyers’ behaviors in the broader context of dignitarian values.

      Right now, this profession keeps recreating its worst aspects with the kind of people and behavior it valorizes. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope for sudden and dramatic change, but there are growing voices in the wilderness, such as those associated with the therapeutic jurisprudence and comprehensive law movements.

      There’s obviously a ton of work to be done. You use terms such as pathological, narcissistic, and elitist to describe the worst of the legal profession. I would add spoiled and entitled to that list.

      These qualities, I have found, transcend political and ideological affiliations. Some of the worst of these folks are self-identified progressives out there fighting for the people, while on an individual level they treat people like dirt.

      I’m not suggesting that Elena Kagan has risen to the level of this low. On balance, I expect her to be a liberal to moderate vote on the Court. But her reported behavior leads me to believe that our nation’s highest tribunal will continue to be short on demonstrated empathy and everyday experience.

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