Monday, August 23, 2010

Watch Out for the Bus!

How to spot the signs before you find yourself under the wheels.

To outsiders, Big Law Land seems like a fairly safe work environment -- beautiful buildings and climate-controlled offices filled with smartly dressed lawyers sitting in ergonomic chairs and using ergonomic mice. The most commonly reported worker's compensation claims must involve paper cuts and carpal tunnel syndrome. Not to dismiss these ailments, but compared to the risks associated with operating a wood chipper or catching crab in the Bering Sea, Big Law gigs are relatively safe.

Or are they?

The dangers associated with Big Law employment are not as noticeable as risk of drowning or dismemberment. But they can be almost as devastating to your career. One specific danger looms large in Big Law Land -- buses. As in be careful or you will be "thrown under the bus."


Maybe this expression is foreign to you. Some people refer to this as being "hung out to dry" or "taking the fall." Let me explain. Being "thrown under the bus" is the workplace equivalent of being involuntarily thrown in front of an oncoming bus in order to slow the bus down and divert injury from the person who threw you in front of said bus.

Being thrown under the bus by a co-worker or superior is not just being called out for your failures. It is being blamed solely for something that is not necessarily, or entirely, your fault. You need to recognize the signs of a bus headed in your direction and develop a strategy for survival.

"How do I know if I have been thrown under a bus, and what can I do about it?"

Excellent question.


Let's say that you are working for Junior Partner on a very important deal for Rainmaker Partner and MegaCorp. Junior Partner asks you to ship some boxes of paper back to the client by sending you the following e-mail:

To: Cog No. 343
From: Junior Partner
Time 7:30 p.m.
Subject: URGENT -- Please Ship Box!

Please ship Box No. 4 to Jane Doe at the client. My secretary can get you her address.
This must go out tonight -- surely you know where the latest FedEx drop is? Thanks!
Being a good Cog, you respond immediately, get the address from the secretary, get the box, look up the latest drop spot, dash to your car and race the box to the airport just in time for the last pick-up. Yes! Crisis averted!

Three weeks later you are summoned to a meeting with Rainmaker Partner and Junior Partner. You have no clue what has happened.

Rainmaker Partner to Junior Partner and Cog No. 343: "Does anyone want to tell me how MegaCorp's highly confidential documents were shipped to an ex-employee who then leaked them to the media?"

Junior Partner: "Sir, Cog No. 343 handled all shipment of boxes in this case. I am stunned."

You ask yourself, "I shipped that one box, that one night, to the person I was told to ship it to. What just happened here?"

Well, that strange feeling in your chest is the weight of the fat bus tires perched atop your little Cog body as you lie in the street protecting Junior Partner.

What should you do now? You have a few options -- with varying consequences:

a) Immediately defend yourself: "Rainmaker Partner, Junior Partner made me do it and gave me the address. It is not my fault!"

This is a bad option. The Rainmaker Partner will think you are throwing Junior Partner under the bus to save yourself, or even if he believes you, he will just think you are a whiner and blame you anyway.

b) Push the blame further downhill: "But I used the name and address from Junior Partner's secretary. I had no way to know it was wrong!"

This also will make you seem like a whiner. Even if the secretary and Junior Partner contributed to this error, as a Cog you are responsible for the errors of those above you (Junior Partner) and below you (all Junior Cogs, paralegals, secretaries and plant waterers).

c) Take it and delay vengeance: "Correct, I did ship the box. I apologize for this error. I will go back to my office immediately, look through my notes, determine what went wrong and develop a strategy for avoiding future failures and remedying the present lapse."

Good plan. Own the error, scamper back to your desk, pull up the e-mail from the Junior Partner, and forward it to Rainmaker and Junior Partner with the following addition:

"I have confirmed that I did in fact ship box No. 4 to Jane Doe, please see e-mail below. I realize my error was failing to conduct an independent inquiry to verify the employment status of this client representative before shipping the package on the last flight out of Atlanta. I will now undertake to verify all client contact information to avoid any future lapses. I also will be glad to accept responsibility for this error to the client."

Perfect. Not wimpy, shows who sent you the wrong information without (blatantly) casting blame, and illustrates your willingness to take one for the team. The partners will not require you to apologize to the client in person -- that would require introducing you to the client, and that is silly. They will just tell them it was a Cog and in a few years when you get to actually work with the client, they will never know you were involved in that little fiasco and not fired!

It is not always so easy to recognize when you are being thrown under the bus. It often happens when you are not in the room to defend yourself -- during a conference call with the client or a meeting of the partners you were not invited to attend.

Experienced bus throwers know better than to give you an opportunity to defend yourself. They will never put any directive or decision in an e-mail. They will claim ignorance of any decision they made which led to your error. The most dangerous ones will actually manage to convince you that they told you to do the opposite thing.

You can try to protect yourself by sending confirmation e-mails: "Partner, I just wanted to confirm that you want the box shipped tonight to Jane Doe at 234 Rocking Chair Lane." But you will get no response, or just an undocumented phone call confirmation. If they are that good, you are powerless to avoid a potential career-ending injury from the big fat bus tires if something goes awry. "The wheels on the bus go round and round ... ."

1 comment:

Hudson Valley Felony Defense Attorney said...

Good article pertaining to federal crimes. I think you did a good job explaining the "thrown under the bus" expression. Thanks.