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Part I: The clique makes me feel like I’m in high school

julie fleming brownOffice-Politics Guest Adviser Julie Fleming-Brown, J.D. answered the letter below. Julie provides attorney development coaching, assisting lawyers in polishing the skills necessary to support a successful practice, building an expanding client base, taking on leadership roles, and integrating their professional and personal lives for maximum effectiveness and satisfaction.

Dear Office-Politics,

I am an attorney — specifically, a prosecutor. My problem is that there is a dominant clique in my workplace, and I have been regularly excluded (implicitly and expressly) from social events. I feel as though I’m in high school again, and my co-workers have formed an exclusionary clique comprised of only the “cool” kids.

It all began when another co-worker attorney — a temporary employee who I’ll call “Tad” — began making comments behind my back. I was a new attorney (hired permanently) and his office was next to mine. On my first day I stopped by to introduce myself to Tad. He was not friendly, but cold, distant, and apparently annoyed. I got the sense that he was jealous, because I was a permanent hire and that he was not (and he was leaving soon, without another job lined up). Unfortunately, the following week, when my supervisor went out of town for a week, guess who was put “in charge” of our team? Tad. Which is bizarre, but not surprising: my supervisor, a former Marine, strictly adhered to seniority. Among the 12 or so attorneys on my team, all had been there less than a year — except for Tad, who, despite being fresh out of law school and a temporary employee, had senior status.

While Tad was “in charge,” I had taken 2 days off from work (pre-approved by my supervisor) for the purpose of completing my move from another city. So I asked some of my co-workers, including Tad, to cover my court appearances while I was gone. When the supervisor returned, I was called into his office. Tad had reported to him that I was not a “team player”! The supervisor didn’t know the specifics — but he urged me to “make amends” with my co-workers. So I tried to do that. When I privately met with Tad, he swallowed hard, stammered, and seemed shocked that the supervisor had passed along his complaint to me! He finally explained that the problem was that I had burdened my co-workers with extra work, and that I should have returned the favor by volunteering to take on some of their work. One of the co-workers said much the same; the remaining half dozen or so others that I met with denied having any problem with me. This tit-for-tat attitude struck me as immature — I mean, we all eventually ask people for favors at work. But I handled it as diplomatically as I could — Tad assurred me he was my “friend” — and I thought I had put it behind me.

I soon realized that, for reasons that still escape me, Tad was popular with my fellow attorneys and one of the organizers of the Friday night “happy hours.” I couldn’t understand why people liked Tad; he was arrogant, and he habitually talked about people behind their backs. Tad left a few weeks later, but I soon found that my co-workers, while otherwise polite, weren’t inviting me to their lunch gatherings. And I was being excluded not only from from happy hours, but also other social events. I tried to join a flag football team, only to be humiliated by the team captain, who circulated an email in which he questioned my physical shape and suggested that I practice by having my grandmother throw footballs at me. Now, I can take a joke, but it struck me as mean-spirited. I sensed that I was disliked, and I could only assume that Tad had been behind it, and that his efforts to discredit me had survived even after his departure.

At first, I swallowed my pride. I wasn’t included on emails that announced the locations for happy hour, but I went out of my way to find out where they were anyway. I tried to be friendly at the happy hours — but most (though not all) of my co-workers seemed standoffish. I’m a bit older (by about 10-15 years than most of the attorneys) and I’m sure that has something to do with it, though obviously it’s not the whole story. I’ve noticed that the older attorneys in the office (except for those who are supervisors) also appear to be excluded from these events, and they’ve confessed to me to feeling excluded, too. The exclusion seems so childish. I’m a sociable person. I’m not married; I don’t have a family life that would otherwise take me away from social events at work. I’d never had this problem before; I’d always been friendly, if not friends, with my co-workers. Some of my fondest memories are of shared times with co-workers. My isolation especially bothers me because I’m in a new city. Initially, I had not made any friends yet, and here I was being excluded from my only available social network.

The last straw came about four months later when a going away “pizza” party was held for a co-worker with whom I had developed a bond of sorts. Emails were sent and announcements were posted about the event. I showed up with the departing co-worker and announced, “Boy, am I hungry!” And someone replied, “Uh, I hope we have enough pizza.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And then a couple of people explained that only attorneys in the departing co-worker’s team were invited. (I recently had transferred to another team.) Of course, the announcements and the emails sent to everybody made no such distinction! So, I and a couple of others (who, like me, were no longer on the team) filed out of the party room. Somebody (feeling guilty) called out after us: “I don’t know how you guys could walk away from the aroma of a warm pizza,” but we didn’t feel welcome and kept walking. Later, the organizer left a note on my chair, apologizing. I told her I didn’t take it personally. After all, I wasn’t the only one treated that way. But it confirmed for me that, despite the fact that I had worked alongside these co-workers for four months, I had not made any friends or even allies among my immediate co-workers.

The isolation continues and I have resigned myself to the fact that work will never be a place for social contacts. Nevertheless, I feel very uncomfortable when I see co-workers trudging off to lunch or happy hour together in groups, filing past my door, with no one bothering to invite me. This is where I wanted to have my lifetime career as a prosecutor. It’s a wonderful city, a couple of hours from my parents and siblings. If I go to another prosecutor’s office in a big city, it would mean moving to another city far away, likely out of state.

One sympathetic friend suggested that I just throw a party and invite everyone at work, and see if that clears the air. But I’m afraid no one would show up! Pitiful, isn’t it? Any constructive ideas, or am I doomed to work in a place where I feel like an outsider?


A prosecutor who stands alone

Follow-up Letter from Prosecutor:

We received a follow-up letter from the Prosecutor which disclosed some key facts: his wife had died recently, he wondered if he was radiating unhappiness and therefore people were not attracted to him, and he felt he was lacking confidence. He also observed that he was more comfortable with the paralegals because they were not arrogant (like his fellow attorneys).

julie fleming brown

Dear Prosecutor,

I’ve read your letter and your follow-up with additional details, and my heart goes out to you. Feeling left out is difficult under the best of circumstances, and your discomfort comes through loud and clear.

First, my condolences on your wife’s death. Working through your grief, beginning a new job in a new city, and finding a less-than-optimal collegial environment would take a toll on anyone. As is usual in just about any office situation, there are lots of issues at play here and a variety of ways you could move them. I gather that you don’t want to stay in this situation as is and that you’re not eager to leave. So, the question then becomes whether and how you can either stay and accept (rather than be resigned to) what’s happening or change it. Accepting is a viable decision, but because of the tone of your letter, I’m focusing this response on how you might work to change it — which could also lead to acceptance as well.

Based on your description, the flag football incident and the pizza party debacle both sound like turning points in your perception of your office standing. While there’s certainly some basis for that conclusion, it’s also possible that your coworkers simply lacked maturity and social grace in these situations. That isn’t to excuse the behavior, which sounds truly dreadful! Asking what lay behind their poor behavior, though, may give you additional insight into who your co-workers are and how you might relate to them.

Your description makes it clear that Tad had a negative reaction to you from the beginning and no compunction about letting it flow. I wonder whether your experience with him followed by the bungled (intentionally or otherwise) football and pizza events may have colored your view of what’s happening with your co-workers to some degree. You mention that a couple of co-workers, apparently sensing but not recognizing your grief, have stopped by to ask whether you’re ok. My assessment is that touching base like that suggests that they may be basically nice people who like you. Otherwise, they likely wouldn’t make that effort. That leads me to several thoughts.

Appreciative Inquiry
What might you see differently if you look at events without the idea that you are disliked? In other words, what you see in a new light if you were to ask, what’s right in this situation, or what else might be happening here? Drawn from a framework called appreciative inquiry, focusing on what is positive or what might improve matters often lightens the energy of a situation and sparks new thoughts. You might see a new side of what’s happening, or you might see a step you could take to improve matters. Especially since lawyers tend to be somewhat pessimistic, strengthening the appreciative inquiry muscles often brings significant benefit pretty quickly.

Build Your Group
I’m also curious whether you like your co-workers, and specifically whether you like (or at least would like to get a chance to know) the co-workers who are going out in groups and not inviting you. If so, perhaps you might consider approaching them (and others who have been excluded from group gatherings) one-on-one, inviting them to lunch or just chatting for a bit, and getting to know them. If this idea appeals, you might start with the ones who’ve been friendly to you and see whether your overtures develop a core group of friendly acquaintances.

One factor to keep in mind is that some people, especially those who are younger or less mature, may have a hard time dealing with the death of a coworker’s wife or child. Although your letter suggests that you aren’t bringing up your loss at work, if others are aware of it, they may shy away from you simply because of their own discomfort. Being aware of that possibility may help you to make the first move toward establishing a working friendship, and if their discomfort is a factor, you’ll likely find that it will ease over time.

Since age may be an issue too, you might consider spending more time with others in your office who are older than the “popular kids.” I’ve observed similar dynamics in the past, and often over time the older and younger crowds begin to mix, as comfort and respect grows between the groups and as the younger colleagues age.

You mention that some of the most popular and respected lawyers in your office are cocky and mention the “arrogance of attorneys,” then you suggest that boosting your confidence might make your more attractive to people in your office. Although a lack of confidence doesn’t come through in your description, if you’re feeling unsure of yourself, that may affect how others see you and, even more importantly, how you view what’s going on around you. Imagine that you felt more confident. What thoughts would underlie your feelings of confidence? How would you act differently? What would you say differently? How might you view the way others are reacting to you if you felt more confident? Finding your answers to each of those questions and then building them into your experience today may lead you to different results.

Find Your Balance
Finally, ask what’s most important to you here. Do you want to have friends at work? Do you want to work in an office where everyone socializes together? And how important is that aspect of your professional life to you? It’s certainly possible to turn your isolation around, but it may or may not be possible to bring together the entire office — especially if (as your letter suggests) the cliques existed long before you arrived. You list a lot of reasons for wanting to remain in this office. What’s the balance between those reasons and your discomfort with the other attorneys? Would it be enough for you to develop a collegial, though perhaps not sociable, office environment?

I hope some of these ideas and questions take you in a fruitful direction. Good luck, and thanks for writing in to Office-Politics.com!



Julie Fleming-Brown, J.D.

Julie Fleming-Brown, J.D. provides attorney development coaching, assisting lawyers in polishing the skills necessary to support a successful practice, building an expanding client base, taking on leadership roles, and integrating their professional and personal lives for maximum effectiveness and satisfaction. Julie is a certified leadership coach (Georgetown University) and a member of the International Coaching Federation. Following her 1993 graduation from the Emory Law School and a federal judicial clerkship, she practiced law for more than a decade. Julie is a fellow of the American Bar Foundation and remains active with the ABA Section of Science and Technology Law. Please visit www.lifeatthebar.com for more information.


See Part II answer by Franke James, Office-Politics Founder

  1. 4 Answers to “Part I: The clique makes me feel like I’m in high school”

  2. Feedback from Prosecutor: to Part I by Julie Fleming-Brown and Part II by Franke James, Editor and Founder, Office-Politics.com

    Franke and Julie,

    Thank you both for your prompt and intelligent responses to my inquiry. And thanks for your sympathy about my wife’s death — it has been a critical factor in my life. Anyway, your ideas are creative and very helpful, but will, of course, depend on my follow through.

    When I found your website, it felt good to get what had been bothering me off my chest. But I don’t want you to think that I’m overwhelmed by this issue, and that it dominates my life. Nevertheless, you have asked a good question: Why do I want to be friends with these people? I have a complete life; why do I crave to be accepted by my younger colleagues?

    My dilemma is that, although I’m 46, I’m single — and that is one thing that I have in common with the younger “happy hour” crowd at my work. Maybe this is a bit of a mid-life crisis, but, really, I am single and in the need of company of other singles. And they’re not so easy to find when you’re in your 40s. Also, it’s a tribal thing. I love my job as a prosecutor, and I want, of course, to be accepted by others in my “tribe.” I guess I really miss the camaraderie that I enjoyed at my other workplaces; it’s helps make a difficult, time-consuming job more satisfying.

    Julie is correct that the maturity of my colleagues — and what she describes as a lack of “social grace” — is a major factor at play here. I don’t think my colleagues are malicious — but I do believe they are insensitive, and I’m astonished by their level of it. But they are young — some at least 20 years my junior — and when I think back to my own behavior when I was their age, I find it very easy to understand and forgive and to be more positive about the events. By the way, I didn’t mean to suggest that all of them are bad — some of the young attorneys are wonderful people! They’re kind and genuine. Unfortunately, the two or three persons who do the social organizing, who control the emails and send out the invitations, are cocky and, at least to me, not as wonderful.

    Which brings me to Julie’s idea of appreciative inquiry. Actually, I have striven to be positive about events at work. I’ve had my share of cognitive/rational therapy over the years, and I understand that how we perceive a situation subjectively often overwhelms the objective reality. When some people might have just given up, I tried to look at the bright side. For example, I swallowed my pride and went to happy hours even when I wasn’t invited to them, and I joined the office softball team this summer. I think some of my colleagues understood me better, because they had an opportunity to hang out with me after games. Unfortunately, the two or three who are the organizers of events have not completely welcomed me into their fold. I am certain that the age barrier is the chief issue here.

    I have made some efforts to build a social group with older persons in my office. I have lunch with them occasionally, and I do converse with them. But, with few exceptions, they have families, have settled down, and are not the type to socialize after work. I’ll be blunt: they don’t have fun like my younger colleagues do! I know Julie essentially suggested that I temper my desire to be with them, and find balance with friends outside work. I’ve done that, but it took a great deal of effort. My experience is that, when moving to a new city and starting a new job, the easiest way to make friends is to find them at work.

    Franke suggested that I consider what I could do to improve my “physical presence.” I honestly don’t need work in that respect. I’m tall (about 6-4), physically fit, I dress tastefully, and friends describe me as handsome. And I look pretty young for my age — at least that’s what people tell me. But — and this is the key — I’m still 20 years older than my younger colleagues, and they know it. (The incident involving the flag football, I think, was an attempt to put an “old man” in his place, and it’s telling that people who teased me were college-level athletes, mostly in football.) One sympathetic, older colleague suggested that my younger colleagues are probably intimidated not so much by my age, but by my experience. Perhaps so, but these are Harvard and Yale types. They’ve got abundant confidence, overly so.

    I think Franke’s advice that I should strive for respect is sensible, and something I will pursue as a solution to my problem. Personally, though, while I wouldn’t mind the respect that comes from getting published in a law journal, the process of writing an article isn’t very fun! I have creative pursuits — poetry and art — that I love, and they are far more gratifying than law. Frankly, I’d rather get published in a poetry journal than a law review. I wish my colleagues knew this side of me. (For example, I recently produced a charity poetry reading, but no one at work, except for my supervisor and one or two legal assistants, knew about it.) But I am a private person, and so maybe this is a choice I’ve made.

    Thank you for the advice you’ve both given me. I’ll contact you again and let you know how things have improved.

    By Letter writer on Nov 5, 2007

  3. Why would you want to be accepted by co-workers who’s behavior is unacceptable to you?

    By Beckey Hudelson on Jun 28, 2011

  4. I have the same situation going. I live alone, never married, moved here from another state. the workplace is suppose to be a group of social workers and they act like 15 year old girls with their constant gossiping, goofing off, and exclusionary tactics. Its difficult to have people who are suppose to be professionals ignore you every day. Its very personal and it makes one angry.

    By sue on Oct 31, 2011

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