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.

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