Air traffic controllers, surgeons, and bomb disposal technicians all have something in common: they face huge levels of stress. That stress is part and parcel of their jobs. There’s something else all those jobs have in common. Every professional involved in these roles perform with calm, cool equanimity. There’s no name-calling in air traffic control centers; no one yells or screams in operating rooms; no one would think of needling a bomb disposal technician during a looming deadline.
Obviously, the practice of law can be extremely stressful. Yet, employees (staff and attorneys, including partners) in some law firms still don’t seem to grasp that demoralizing and intimidating is almost always unnecessary, unwelcome, and affirmatively counter-productive. Thankfully, an increasing number of law firms have come to grips with how difficult the law office work environment can become. They understand, too, that unnecessary stress leads to expensive and disruptive attrition.
However, there remain other law firms who have yet to embrace these issues and instead, they try to determine, in advance, which staff will be least affected by a gratuitously stressful work environment. This often takes the form of interview questions along the lines of, “Do you enjoy working in a stressful environment? Do you strive for unobtainable standards of perfection? Are you good at dealing with people who have aggressive and demanding behavior? Or Do you think you have ‘thick skin’?”
How is any candidate supposed to answer those questions honestly since it is highly doubtful anyone who answered, “Yes I simply love working in a stressful environment,” is being truthful! A better response might be “I perform very well in stressful situations, so long as everyone treats each other respectfully. Or, I put professional pride into absolutely everything I do, but I also appreciate that perfection is usually not achievable in the ‘real world.’”
Frankly, I would prefer the candidate, once they got the sense that a particular job involves a toxic environment, the best plan is to politely pass, not to tell an interviewer what you think they want you to say.
If an interviewer feels a genuine need to ask these kinds of questions, it is probably time for critical examination and introspection for the hiring process. Hiring someone or getting hired doesn’t make sense for either side. A toxic environment makes the working relationship unproductive or, worse, unsustainable. Managing gratuitous stress and insisting everyone treat each other respectfully simply makes good business sense.
Perhaps tolerating gratuitous stress in law firms is cultural — that’s the way we’ve always done it, that’s how everyone does it. Perhaps it has something to do with the types of people who are attracted to law practices. But, regardless, gratuitous stress can make working in a law office difficult and unpleasant.