“Managing up” in law firms

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.  While I have no doubt that other skills  have always been required (the ability to communicate well, to lead well, etc.), it’s quite clear to me that more is needed now.  Client development skills, certainly, but also the desire to advance as a professional and as a key member of a team, whether that team is staffing a case or running an office/firm.  And “managing up,” a concept discussed with respect to corporate careers but rarely so in law firms, is a first step.

I’ll start by defining “managing up” 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 — even if the supervising lawyer is, for some reason, less senior.  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.

Many books and articles have been written on managing up, so it would be impossible for me to write a blog post that would approach the subject fully.  So, I’ll address it on a conceptual level, with some concrete ideas and suggestions, and perhaps flesh it out further over time.

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 I advance what the supervising attorney is trying to accomplish?
*  What can I do to best contribute to this team in a way that the supervising lawyer will appreciate?

For example, 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 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 winning the litigation, and you need to know at what point the supervising lawyer will be acting from the primary motivation of each goal.  Similarly (and I expect every lawyer will already know this), it’s important when drafting a letter for a supervising lawyer’s signature to write the letter in her style, not yours — and to discover that style by checking previous letters she’s written or  by asking her assistant.

A good, quick rundown of “managing up” strategies is found in the table of contents for a book titled Managing Up.  I can’t vouch for the book (I haven’t read it), but I like some of  the chapter titles.

So, questions for you to consider: how might you manage up?  What would be appropriate methods of doing so?  And how might you advance by taking these steps?

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply