Credit where it isn't due // Bar Code

How to deal with calculating colleagues who use your ideas to get ahead

By Sandra Rosier

On Thursday September 15th, 2011


Dear Sandra,
Another associate I’m working with took credit for a memo that I forwarded to her for comment. She did zero work. The partner loved it, sent it to the client and she got taken out to dinner…with the client. I’m feeling homicidal right now and pretty stupid.
— Sucker Boy

Oh no she didn’t! Welcome to the jungle, Sucker Boy. It amazes me that people use such sharp-elbowed tactics to get ahead in their careers. What your colleague did is not only supremely evil, it’s stupid. What about the research and billing trails? What do you suppose will happen when she has to answer detailed questions about the work you did?

You’re not the stupid one, Sucker Boy. Many of us nicer folks are often at a loss about how to deal with backstabbing, scheming colleagues. The last thing you should do is climb into the gutter with her. The best way to handle this is to confront her outright. Too scared to face down your nemesis? Ask your mentor for advice or speak to your firm’s director of student and associate programs. Chances are your colleague has burned others and may already be on a watch list.

I can understand why you would hesitate to go to the partner; you probably don’t want to come off as a crybaby. Remember, however, that the truth and evidence are on your side. Successful associates take ownership of the ir careers and advocate for themselves. If you do nothing, you become complicit in a lie.

I will never forget the sting I felt after seeing a case law comment I had written published in the firm’s tax bulletin with another associate’s name on it. I presented the case during a department meeting and afterwards the evil associate in question asked me for my draft to prepare for a seminar she was attending. I never expected her to submit it to the firm bulletin and slap her name on it! I called my mentor (with whom I had discussed the case at length) mostly to complain. He suggested that I confront her with a carefully crafted email, copy him and give her a chance to “redeem” herself. The email began: “I noticed that my case comment was published in the recent tax bulletin with your name as author. I assume this was an oversight. How should we correct the error?” Almost instantaneous response: “Whoops, sorry! Editorial mistake. Will correct ASAP.” Yeah right, sister. But, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and laid the matter to rest. No beat down necessary.

Sucker Boy, competition can take many forms in the workplace but your colleague crossed the line. Watch your back at work and never lose sight of your end-game. I am not advocating duplicity, deliberate insensitivity toward others or the unethical tactics used by your colleague. Firms generally like team players and would roundly condemn such behaviour. Most lawyers are ethical, collaborative and affable. When in doubt, remember the words of Beastie Boys rapper Mike D: “Be true to yourself and you will never fall.”


Colleague screwed you over?
Here are Sandra’s tips for bouncing back — with ethics and grace

  • LSUC’s Rules of Professional Conduct is a living, breathing guide for how to treat your colleagues
  • Call the Law Society or consult the ethics counsel at your firm about behaviour that crosses the line
  • Revenge is for the samurai. Channel the seething rage into your work
  • You’re a lover, not a sucker: confront your nemesis by using artfulness rather than brute force
  • Don’t put a colleague on the spot to save your own skin
  • Secure credit for your own work by “advertising” your knowledge: talk to others about your work, discuss your research, ask for feedback on your outline and market yourself
  • Everyone is not out to get you. Watch your back but do not succumb to paranoia
  • Your focus should be on building relationships and reputation through hard work, not crushing the competition. This isn’t law school
  • Learn from it and move on

Sandra Rosier is a tax advisor in Toronto.

Illustration by Bob Hambly