I have no academic study to verify this, but I have concluded that many bad employers have a sixth sense for retaining thuggish employment lawyers who serve as their willing executioners of workers who file complaints about working conditions, blow the whistle on ethical and legal lapses, or attempt to organize a union.
More than an obligatory disclaimer
There are many management-side employment lawyers who provide wise counsel to their clients and who practice law in a manner worthy of emulation.
They safeguard their clients’ legal interests while encouraging them to follow the law. They understand that employers who treat their workers poorly probably suffer in terms of the bottom line as well. They believe that if a client faces a meritorious lawsuit, then settling the claim fairly and promptly usually benefits everyone, but they will vigorously contest a weak or groundless claim.
Unfortunately, not all management-side employment lawyers practice in this manner. Indeed, the legal universe somehow has a way of matching some of the worst employers with some of the most thuggish employment lawyers.
These attorneys may be fine parents, serve on non-profit boards, and be a load of laughs at the neighborhood barbeque.
However, once they put on their lawyer suits, they are utterly heartless. Because they have superior numbers and resources to defend claims against their clients, they exercise their power with an iron fist.
They distort, intimidate, and delay. They take a worker’s minor faults or mistakes and elevate them into major deficiencies. They help their clients sweep horrible behaviors and actions under the rug. They use legal process to deplete, torture, and humiliate everyday workers.
Some of them appear to harbor an eliminationist mindset, at least in the way they casually destroy another’s livelihood and well-being. They regard a complainant — whether a clerk at a retail store or a mid-level executive — as the disruptive Other, a troublemaker who threatens the client who pays them so handsomely and — by extension — challenges The System in which they’ve succeeded.
And here’s how we get them
There’s an underlying sociology to how some lawyers get this way. They often are recruited right out of law school by law firms that practice in this mode. They are hardworking, ambitious, and intellectually sharp individuals who have benefited mightily from being team players, frequently coming from privileged backgrounds (or they are wannabes), but without a lot of life experience.
Very few have known what it’s like to be in a “minority,” and if they have, they want to distance themselves from that experience. Their natural loyalties are to the Establishment; hence, the clients they are drawn to represent.
Thus primed, they become conditioned by a law firm or corporate culture that regards individual workers as commodities. They become remarkably unreflective about the consequences of what they do, because in their top-down worldview, people on the receiving end of their negative actions simply count for less.
A moral question, if not an ethical one
I realize these are harsh words. And I cannot reiterate too strongly that they do not apply to a significant majority of lawyers who represent employers.
That said, this interpersonally abusive mode of employment law practice has led to a long, sad trail of broken careers and psyches of workers who have been crushed by these handmaidens of employer cruelty. I believe we need to question the morality of practicing in this manner, even if such practice technically stays within the ethical rules that govern the legal profession.