Managing Up

One of the interesting things about practicing law is that, until relatively recently, little discussion occurred about how to advance in practice beyond becoming a top-notch practitioner.  Other skills have always been required (including, for example, the ability to communicate well and to lead well), and it’s quite clear that more is needed now.  Client development skills are critical, certainly, and getting a tremendous amount of press especially in this economy, and the same is true for client service skills.

Yet something else is required beyond client- and practice-centered skills.  A lawyer who wants to advance in his career must possess the desire to grow professionally and to serve as a key member of a team, whether that team is staffing a case or running an office/firm.  “Managing up,” a concept often discussed with respect to corporate careers but rarely so in law firms, is an important skill in achieving that level of advancement.

“Managing up” may be defined as the strategies and skills that a more junior attorney can apply to develop a strong working and collegial relationship with more senior lawyers.  This isn’t a concept limited to associates or to new lawyers, though; it’s something that any lawyer working with a supervising attorney should consider.  “Managing up” is applicable for all kinds of law firm work, substantive and administrative.

You’ll recognize some of the aspects of “managing up” as skills and strategies that smart lawyers develop and use.  My hope is that by using the term “managing up” to encapsulate them, one concept can be used to describe quickly a variety of behaviors and considerations.  Much has been written in the corporate literature about managing up, and it would be impossible for me to write a single article that would cover the subject fully.  So, today’s discussion addresses it on a conceptual level, with some concrete ideas and suggestions.

When considering how to “manage up,” one question rises above all others: what will be most helpful in this situation to the supervising lawyer?  And that question breaks down into a number of sub-questions, such as:

  • What will best serve the client?
  • What is the client’s ultimate goal?  Think beyond the immediate to what really matters for this client.
  • What best serves the supervising lawyer’s style?
  • What does the supervising lawyer really need, and will the client pay for that?  If not, how can you adapt?
  • What does the supervising lawyer need to know?
  • How can you advance what the supervising attorney is trying to accomplish?
  • What can you do to best contribute to this team in a way that the supervising lawyer will appreciate?

For example, if a litigation client’s ultimate goal is to protect its legal interest while doing minimal damage to an important business relationship, that client will likely approach the litigation differently than if the goal is to cause maximum pain to the other party to force a business outcome.  To serve the client, and also to serve the supervising lawyer, most effectively, you need to know about the ultimate goal as well as the immediate goal of the matter at hand, and you need to know at what point the supervising lawyer will be acting from the primary motivation of each goal.

For a quick summary of basic “managing up” strategies, review the table of contents for Michael and Deborah Singer Dobson’s book Managing Up: 59 Ways to Build a Career-Advancing Relationship with Your BossI can’t vouch for the book (I haven’t read it), but some of the chapter titles give sound-bite reminders of effective strategies.

Work on your habits

So you want to grow your practice… What’s your focus? You could answer that question with many different right answers.

This short blog post from Chris Brogan offers one answer: Focus on your habits. It isn’t rocket science to understand that your likelihood of success (in business development or otherwise) increases substantially if you have a good plan in place and you execute on your plan with consistent activity. 

Brogan’s post is unique in that it will help you quantify the habits you need to develop. That’s important because (as the old saw states) what gets measured gets done. Read the post for more and to learn what it means to focus on “the number before the number” to reach your goals. Reading the post will take less than 2 minutes, and you will find it’s time well spent.

Silence May Not Mean Satisfaction

You’ve probably heard it before: it’s much easier to source new business from an existing client than from a non-client. 

You may also know that many clients judge their experience based largely on the day-to-day interactions between you – how well you serve the client, in other words.  Studies show that clients unhappy with the service they receive will not necessarily share that displeasure with you unless it becomes so pronounced that they’re ready to discontinue the relationship and hire someone else instead.  That’s the wrong time to learn that your client is dissatisfied: it’s usually too late to correct the problem and save the relationship.

Last week’s travel reinforced each of those points and, by analogy, provided some insight into what goes right and what can go wrong with client relationships.

Thanks to all the travel I do, I’m a platinum member with Delta.  Some months ago, I had to fly another airline between LA and San Francisco, and it was an eye-opening experience.  It was all about customer service:

  • When I checked in, the agent asked how I was and looked at me while I answered.  The agent chatted with me as he quickly and accurately checked me in and printed my ticket.  He answered my several questions with humor and good information.  This is, unfortunately, not a common experience for me while traveling.
  • Boarding was fast and easy, the seats were comfortable, and the flight was on time despite a late take-off.
  • The flight attendant was pleasant and helpful.
  • My luggage arrived, and it did so quickly.  (Unfortunately, I now mentally bid farewell to my belongings when I have to check a bag, having had two bags delayed for days and one permanently lost.)

Both airlines have always met the key objective of getting me to my ticketed destination safely.   I like Delta (at least, I’m not terribly dissatisfied with Delta) and yet my short trip with Virgin America made me ready to consider choosing to fly with them when I have that option.  And I noticed the differences highlighted above when I next flew on Delta.  It would be a stretch to say I’m now a customer by convenience rather than loyalty, but it would be completely accurate to say that if the circumstances were right, I could be wooed away by another airline.

Could your clients be wooed away?  Have you recently reviewed your client service standards (with help from your staff, if appropriate) to be sure that your clients receive what they need from you?  A few common areas to consider:

  • How quickly do you return telephone calls and answer emails?
  • Do your clients know the people in your business with whom they may need to talk?  An introduction can help clients feel comfortable talking with others; without one, they may feel foisted off or that they aren’t important enough to talk with you directly.
  • Do you make clients welcome and comfortable when they visit your office?
  • Do you communicate with the frequency and in the mode your clients prefer?

These are just a few examples of areas to consider when you’re evaluating your client service.  This week, take a fresh look at opportunities to serve your clients more effectively.  You might even consider asking a few clients how satisfied they are.  (Use an open-ended question like, “Janice, I’d like to make it as easy as possible for you to work with us.  Is there anything I or my staff could do to provide you with better service?”)  Don’t assume that your clients would let you know if they were dissatisfied.

Acknowledge all of the feedback you receive from clients.  While you may be unable to incorporate every suggestion, failing to acknowledge your clients’ responses may deal a fatal blow to your relationship.  And if you can’t incorporate a suggestion, consider explaining why and making an alternative proposal to meet the client’s concern.

Leadership and Self-Management

We often discuss leadership as if it is a state or quality that either exists or doesn’t.  But the truth is that whether one seeks to become a leader or whether one is already serving in that capacity, leadership develops over time. 

A leader’s development tends to proceed through three stages.  The first stage is self-management.  The second is individual achievement.  The third is leading others.  Although these three stages are distinct from one another, they may coexist and a leader may move back and forth through these stages at various times.

Today’s discussion focuses on the first stage: self-management or leadership of oneself.  Executive coach Sharon Keys Seal, founder of Coaching Concepts Inc., refers to this stage as “leader in the mirror.”  John Maxwell has written, “[h]e who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.”  One of the quickest ways to walk alone is to neglect the importance of self-management.  In contract, leaders who have a solid grounding in self-leadership tend to inspire confidence in those whom they seek to lead.

We all have the opportunity to be the “leader in the mirror,” and those who seek to excel individually or to lead others must manage that first leadership challenge.  Self-management underlies individual achievement as well as leadership of others because the two later stages can’t exist (at least not in a mature, lasting form) without some measure of self-leadership.

Think about a talented but undisciplined athlete.  Raw talent and some measure of discipline often allows him to succeed to a point, perhaps through high school or college.  But at some point, the athlete goes down in flames despite his talent and despite a coach or manager or family urging him to do better, thanks to involvement in crime or violence or immature stupidity.  Some of those athletes reform their behavior through self-management, and others become the stereotypical “has been” who revels in past glory but never achieves what he might have.  The road an athlete walks depends not only on his physical talent, but also on the self-discipline he musters when he’s no longer subject to the control of a parent or coach. 

Is the same true for lawyers and other professionals whose talent lies in intellectual capacity?  You bet. 

One who has mastered self-management has developed a strong capacity to manage his or her beneficial and destructive tendencies.  Self-discipline refers to the ability and willingness to buckle down and do what must be done even (perhaps especially) when one would prefer to do something else.  Self-management is a similar attribute, though it also calls for recognition of what must be done in a variety of contexts. 

Self-management prompts a professional to recognize that he or she will be more effective if well rested, properly nourished, and revitalized with physical activity even though he or she might prefer to eat junk food and watch bad TV to “relax” after work.  Self-discipline is what prompts that lawyer to eat a balanced dinner and to go to bed early enough to get adequate rest, and then to get up early enough to take a walk.

A lawyer who knows what research must be done for a client and who completes that research meticulously exhibits self-management.  One who relies on doing just enough or on doing it at the 11th hour has room to grow.

Self-leadership also impacts your clients and business development.  Some lawyers routinely fail to get work product to clients with enough time for their review and input.   That’s a failure in self-management.  It’s also a leadership failure, because it subtly undermines a client’s confidence in the lawyer’s professionalism and abilities.

The fruit of self-management lies in creating the freedom to achieve to the extent of natural and developed ability, not being held back by a self-sabotaging tendency to cut corners, delay, or burn out.

Must a lawyer exhibit flawless self-management to be an effective leader?  No.  The more developed a leader’s capacity for self-management and self-discipline, the more effective a leader is likely to be.  However, each individual is likely to be better in managing certain areas than others.  A leader may be strong in self-management in the use of working hours, but be deficient in setting aside time for his or her own renewal.

How does your self-management rate this week?  (What would those whom you seek to lead say?)  What can you do to improve it, thereby improving your productivity and practice?