How Can I Avoid Being a Lame Duck Employee?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how to
respond to being pushed out of a job. 

Question:
I work in a very small office, one attorney and two legal assistants, including myself. I worked under an attorney who recently retired, and am finishing up working on his cases with the other attorney. However, the case load is very light, leading me to have little to do at times. The remaining attorney is still taking on cases, and has many on his plate at the moment.

My issue is with the other legal assistant, who was working directly under the remaining attorney. When I was first hired, I was promised to learn several skills, including bookkeeping. However, throughout my time here, the other legal assistant has constantly shut me out of learning how to do many of the office manager-type duties, things that I was told I would be doing when I accepted the job.

Now that the retired attorney is gone, my coworker has told me that I am no longer needed and that they will eventually be laying me off. She has been working here less than a year more than me, and I believe some of her ethics are shaky. However, I have never confronted her about her bad ethical decisions, and though I have asked her and the attorney for more responsibilities, I am given less and less to do, and am therefore not learning anything.

I recently reached out to the attorney, letting him know that I am looking for other jobs and that I realize that my position is no longer needed, and he was very positive and reassuring and told me that he is not pushing me out the door. My coworker is telling me another story. She has been taking away any small responsibility that I have, from checking the mail to filing paperwork in court. She has even redone some of the work that I have already done, taken cases that I have started, and taken paperwork off of my desk. I wrote a letter to the attorney with my concerns, and was told not to worry about it.

All I am hoping for is a little more responsibility and something to do until I am able to find a new job. I feel that my coworker’s actions are affecting my ability to advance my own career, and the attorney isn’t really taking my concerns seriously. Am I doing something wrong?

I believe my coworker found and read the note to the attorney and is no longer speaking to me. It is such a toxic and hostile work environment, and I am desperately trying to leave it, but I also don’t want to let my coworker bully me into quitting when I do not have a viable alternative. I feel that I have done nothing wrong, and I have tried to be accommodating, but it has reached a point that I am kept from advancing my own knowledge. What do I do?

Answer:
I can understand why you feel as though you are being pushed out and why you want to find a job somewhere else. I’m sorry things have gotten to this point, because I can imagine it has created a lot of uncertainty and unhappiness for you. However, I think it is possible for you to shake off those feelings and enter this Holiday time and the New Year with a renewed sense of value and a vision of where you want to go next.

First, the unpleasant reality: It sounds as though the time when you could have had the most influence over your development at work, was when your primary attorney was still there and you had a future in the office. It’s unfortunate that your attorney didn’t ensure that there was a clear transition path for you after he left.

At this point, when you are wrapping up the work of that attorney and are looking for another job, there is no reason for the remaining attorney to ask his legal assistant to take the time to train you in new skills, whether or not she was supposed to do it prior to now. Further, she can partly justify taking on more of the tasks, since she will presumably be doing all of it on her own, before long. She can’t justify the way she is going about it, but the attorney probably doesn’t suspect she is being so unpleasant. Probably he just wants to get the work done and wants to avoid being involved in a conflict. I suspect you and your coworker have never had a friendly relationship and she sees this as her chance to show you who has the power in the office—and to make the office all hers, without having to share it.

You don’t say how you have responded when the coworker has re-done your work or taken work from you. Is it possible the attorney has asked her to do it, so the work is done in some way he prefers? Did you ask the attorney about that? Did you tell her to not do it again? Have you asked for a meeting with her and the attorney, to straighten out the division of labor in the office and what your tasks are?

Those are rhetorical questions, but ones that would be good for you to think about. In your question to us, you described a situation in which you have accepted all the coworker has done or not done. I’m sure there is more to it than that, but perhaps not. If you intend to stay at least a few months more, it seems it would be worthwhile to push back about being pushed out.

Start by going to work determined to show dignity, strength and confidence. Bring your best and brightest personality and presence to the workplace and re-establish yourself as a full-time employee who is planning to stay for an indefinite but prolonged time. Begin with your desk, cubicle or work space. Clean it, add some new items to show a fresh intent, move things around, make it look like you are settling in, not packing your bags to slither away. (Those actions will certainly get the attention of the coworker and shake her smugness about being able to unnerve you.)

You say that all you want is to be given a little more responsibility and something to do until you are able to find a new job. Have bigger goals that that. Consider developing a new role for yourself in the office and find tasks that the remaining legal assistant isn’t likely to grab from you. For example, use this time to identify the many tasks of the office manager and, while you have access to files and materials, see if you can at least gain some additional working knowledge about what is involved in it. Filing paperwork and checking mail are important tasks, but so is the inventory of supplies, working with vendors for various things, interactions with court staff and legal research, improving security for the office itself and for it’s computers and files.

You can also take on the role of the person who follows up and verifies. If your coworker does something you were responsible for or had worked on, verify with the client, court or other law firm, that they got it and it’s OK and offer to assist further, if it’s appropriate for the situation. You shouldn’t imply that your coworker’s involvement was wrong, just let them know that you are still in the loop. Help your office develop stronger relationships with clients and resources.

Communicate actively with your coworker. There is a tendency to avoid someone who you think of as a bully or who seems to not like you. Instead, communicate pleasantly and with purpose. If your working relationship was a good one, how would you want to interact? Interact that way and at least have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your part to have a better workplace. If you can do that without being sly or insincerely nice sounding, you will have achieved a lot!

I don’t think you should expect the attorney or your coworker to consider it a good use of time to teach you skills you will be using someplace else, rather than there. But, perhaps you can expand some of your appropriate work in a way that will bring value to the office. After all, the one with hiring and firing authority is the attorney. His primary goal is to make money and build the business. Anything you can do to help that, will be a reason to retain you or to ensure a glowing reference when you decide to leave.

For all you know, he may be considering working with another attorney. If you seem like you are still engaged in his practice, he may be more inclined to do that and to ask you to stay. If not, you may find that the administrative tasks of the office can be left to your coworker and you can take on a more holistic role until you can find other employment.

If you are not already a member, consider joining online and local associations, such as the Association of Legal Administrators, the Association of Paralegals and similar groups, as a way to gain training and to show your professional commitment. Refer to something you’ve read or learned. Share material with your attorney and your coworker. If you know other legal assistants, connect with them in a business-like way.

The bottom line is that you probably do not want to stay in that environment if you will always be viewed as a lame duck employee. And, unless your coworker leaves, things may not change. So, you will probably want to put half your focus on finding value in the office and the other half on finding a new place to work. But while you are there, be there strongly and decidedly. Wring as much as you can out of each day and experience. Time is too valuable to waste, so make some positive memories of how you effectively responded to this challenging situation.

Best wishes to you with this. If you wish to do so, let us know of your progress.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors