Advice column: how should I relate to friendly non-legal staff when a senior partner wants to maintain a class barrier?
Due to some recent restructuring at my firm, I was required to move departments and although this has not been easy at times, I have found great support from the secretarial staff in particular who have made me feel very welcome by inviting me to lunches and to nights out after work. However, I was recently shocked at the attitude expressed by one of the senior partners. He commented at one of our meetings that he thought my attitude towards support staff was inappropriate, confirming that solicitors should not be seen to be socialising with such staff and we should only speak to support staff about work-related issues. I thought that such class issues had been eradicated from the workplace and although I do not agree with this way of thinking I also do not want to jeopardise my future progression in the department?
You are right to question such attitudes, as we are after all in the 21st century. Such archaic attitudes are unfortunately still present in the workplace, although perhaps in less vociferous tones.
The “them and us” mentality is sometimes maintained by arguably the more insecure individuals, who as often happens in life tend to base their ignorance on unfounded fear. The senior partner perhaps feels threatened by your friendships with support staff and may think that he could in some way be undermined.
Often it is the support staff who are made aware of confidential matters through access to correspondence etc. There may also be some envy associated with his attitude as he may not have been able to formulate such bonds and may be resentful about a new member of the team being welcomed into the fold so quickly.
Nevertheless, I can appreciate that you do not want to jeopardise your future in the department either. Therefore, I would suggest that you perhaps not make your friendships so visible within the department. You may just have to learn to adapt by perhaps emailing the secretarial staff about sociable matters instead and meeting with them at the venues for lunch etc rather than be seen to be leaving with them. The staff are likely to be aware already of the existence of the partner’s attitudes and may therefore be sympathetic.
You may also want to consider the possibility of organising a social event with all members of the team, including the senior partners and the support staff. You could try to promote the event to senior partners as a way for everyone to get to know each other better following the restructuring, with no particular emphasis on support staff. However, just remember that trying to change such attitudes may be a thankless struggle, as they have been around since the dinosaurs who choose to express them!
“Ash” is a solicitor who is willing to answer work- related queries from solicitors and trainees, which can be put to her via the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to Studio 2001, Mile End, Paisley PA1 1JS. Confidence will be respected and any advice published will be anonymised.
Please note that letters to Ash are not received at the Law Society of Scotland. The Society offers a support service for trainees through its Registrar’s Department. For one-to-one advice contact Katie Wood, Manager in the Registrar’s Department, on 0131 476 8105/8200, or email@example.com