It has been forever since the last edition of Advice for the Lawlame. In this feature, we take a question submitted to one of NYLawyer.com’s popular advice columns, such as “Advice for the Lawlorn,” and offer our own unique take.
Here’s the condensed version of today’s question:
I am a mentor in my firm to a couple of younger lawyers. My problem is that one talks to me too much about personal issues.
A sticky situation. When you’re a partner, she’s an associate, and you’re having conversations about that “not-so-fresh feeling,” you know it’s time to redefine the parameters of your relationship.
The complete version of this question, plus our “advice” — after the jump.
Here is the full version of the letter seeking advice:
I am a mentor in my firm to a couple of younger lawyers. My problem is that one of my mentees talks to me too much about personal issues. I guess I encouraged it, at first, by being open to talking about her problems (in her personal life, with her family, etc.), as I’m a pretty open and personable type, but it has gotten to the point where it takes up too much time and I feel like she’s gotten too dependent on me.
I also don’t think it’s appropriate to send this much time talking about such matters.
I feel a certain degree of responsibility, however, since I willingly talked with her about these things at the outset. How can I redraw the boundaries, so to speak?
Here’s what we have to say:
You’ve really gotten yourself into a pickle. And getting out of it won’t be that easy.
The obvious response is to sit down with your over-disclosing mentee — we’ll call her “Jen” — and tell her that your conversations have become too personal, that things need to be scaled back. This is what Holly English of NYLawyer.com advises.
But we don’t think it will be that easy. Why?
First, you’re not the kind of person who can have such a blunt conversation. As you note, you’re the “open and personable type,” aka “Mr. Nice Guy / Gal.” You won’t be able to bring yourself to tell Jen to “buzz off.”
Second, even if you can bring yourself to deliver such a harsh message to your mentee, she’s not going to listen. Jen is used to turning to you for advice about personal problems. And now she has a “reliance interest” in your pearls of wisdom.
After you have that talk with Jen, maybe she’ll stop bugging you for a few days. But after that next fight with her live-in boyfriend, she’ll be back in your office, using up all your Kleenexes. And you, being such an “open and personable” individual, won’t be able to turn her away.
Stronger measures are needed. Here’s our three-point plan of action:
1. Give her bad advice — REALLY bad advice. There’s a reason Jen keeps on coming back to you: the advice you’ve given her in the past has evidently worked. You need to give your mentee some bad advice, so she’ll start seeking counsel from other quarters.
For example, let’s say Jen asks you what to do after she and her boyfriend get into a fight, because he has been spending too much time hanging out — supposedly just “as friends” — with his old college girlfriend, Rebecca. You should tell your mentee:
“Look, Jen, clearly he’s taking you for granted. Instead of respecting your feelings of jealousy, and cutting off all ties with Rebecca, he’s continuing to hang out with her. That’s just plain wrong.”
“So here’s what you do: Sleep with your boyfriend’s hot younger brother. It won’t be hard to seduce him. Those high school boys are always horny.”
“Have a few assignations with the brother — ’cause, you know, he’s hot. Then schedule one tryst for a time when you know your boyfriend will be coming back to the apartment.”
“When your boyfriend sees you getting it on with his young brother, he’ll be upset. And once you put your clothes back on, you’ll have the perfect opportunity for that heart-to-heart talk.”
“You say to your boyfriend: ‘See? Now you know how hurt and jealous I feel when you go to Starbucks with Rebecca. So how about you stop hanging out with Rebecca, I stop sleeping with your brother, and we call it even?'”
2. Start spreading the news. One surefire way to get Jen to stop bothering you with her personal s**t is to share it with the entire firm. Once she notices that, twenty minutes after telling you about a problem, everyone from the managing partner to the messenger boy knows about it, she’ll stop confiding in you.
For example, let’s say she comes to you and tells you about her latest gastrointestinal ailment. At the partners’ meeting that afternoon, when discussion turns to staffing of new matters, declare to your fellow partners: “I do NOT want Jen working on my case. The quality of her work product has fallen off dramatically — ever since she came down with that mysterious stomach ailment…. And you can’t spend five minutes with her in a conference room before it starts smelling goddawful!”
3. Turn the tables. Next time Jen comes to you with some stupid problem she needs your advice about, turn the tables. Burden her with your own manufactured “difficulties.”
Of course, you don’t want to tell her about any of your real problems (lest she blab about them to your other colleagues). The “problems” you should tell her about should be the kind of problems that only law firm partners have — and maybe i-bankers and hedge fund managers, too.
For example, ask Jen for advice about whether to buy a beach house in South Hampton, West Hampton, or East Hampton. Or whether to stay at the Four Seasons George V, Le Meurice, the Plaza Athénée, or the Ritz on your next trip to Paris.
Be obnoxious about it. Really rub it in her face.
And be persistent. At first, Jen might actually enjoy hearing about your conspicuous consumption. She might live vicariously through you, and start feeling like you and she are “besties.”
Just keep at it. Get more and more annoying, more and more over-the-top. Each time she tries to come to you with one of her domestic dramas, immediately steer the conversation towards your own “problems.” After you burden her for the fifteenth time with the Mercedes / Jaguar / BMW / Lexus debate, boring her to tears with the finer points of their differing warranty policies, she will finally start turning the other way when she sees you coming down the hall.
Yes, this is a tricky situation. But it is possible to extract yourself; it’s not Iraq. Good luck!
Your Friends at Above the Law