Of the many difficult scenarios you’re going to face in a legal career, one of the most challenging can be when your immediate supervisor is a source of grief. But grief takes many forms. Let’s explore a few of the more common areas.
Before we leap in, let’s appreciate that no boss is going to be perfect. They will have their strengths and weaknesses, just like you do, and if you’re going to job hop based entirely on your boss then be very cautious doing so. You might just jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.
More than that, your supervisors might have one of more of these problem areas that infuriate you at different times in different ways. People aren’t generally one dimensional, and in a complex environment like a law firm you have to go with the flow a bit.
That all said, let’s take a look at the common candidates.
The Bumbling Tyrant
This is actually not as common as some people would have you believe, although certainly you’ll find them around the place. The bumbling tyrant is usually a more senior partner with an extremely demanding manner. They are often no longer up to date with Court Rules or latest developments, instead relying on their ability to strike fear into the hearts of their employees to get that kind of information.
They have a tendency to cause a lot of stress around them wherever they go, and can unpredictably launch into a tirade.
To deal with the bumbling tyrant you cannot show fear. You need to embrace a little bit of acceptance that nothing you do will make them happy, and stop trying to “please” them by doing a good job. Still do a good job, of course, but just accept that it probably won’t be good enough. Their shoutyness is their problem, and although you might have to listen to it don’t accidentally let it sink in that good lawyers have to shout in order to get things done.
The Credit Taker
Let’s say that you’ve worked 1467 hours on a matter, with a little supervision by your boss along the way to sign off on letters or approve a course of action. Their total time on the matter is 23 hours. A favourable result occurs.
At this point, the Credit Taker insists on:
- making the phone call to the client
- attending the celebratory lunch (if there is one)
- ensuring all the final mopping up happens quickly
- signing off on things and sending emails.
Basically – the Credit Taker becomes interested in the matter all of a sudden, now that things have concluded happily. They normally explain this with words like “relationship” and “supervision” but mostly it’s just that they like to get the credit for the result. And, in part, that’s probably what should happen when matters have been appropriately delegated, but the Credit Taker takes it to extremes.
Be careful with the Credit Taker. If, for example, you just leap in and start doing things that you know the Credit Taker would like to do themselves, they’re going to get annoyed. That might be a risk you’re prepared to take, but you should be calculating about what’s worth it and what isn’t.
The Storm in a Teacup
“It’s really urgent.”
“What else are you doing at the moment.”
“When’s that other task due?”
Whatever the task, whatever the day, whoever the client – for a Storm in a Teacup, it’s the most urgent thing to do. For them. And for you.
You could be preparing for a contested Court hearing the next day, and the Storm in a Teacup’s file note would be more important in their own mind.
The Storm in a Teacup has a tendency to raise the blood pressure of everyone around them, by the sheer amount of urgency that oozes out of their pores.
The best way to handle the Storm in a Teacup is with precision. If they tell you that you MUST do something by the end of the day, ask them why. What is the nature of the deadline? Ensure they know what you’re doing now, and who you’re doing it for. If there is a priority conflict, then ask them to discuss it with your other supervisor. Of course, this isn’t licence for you to be a pain in the neck, but rather a way of ensuring that they know what else you’re doing and why it’s actually important too.
The Half Baked Delegator
Good delegation is a critical component of a profitable law firm.
And bad delegation is a crippling nightmare that makes everyone’s life more difficult.
The Half Baked Delegator has a tendency to leave out critical information, because they function on a “need to know” basis. And in their mind, you don’t need to know much.
“Could you please do a file note on section X of the Corporations Act?” and then the door shuts. Of course, you don’t know:
- the client
- the file
- the deadline
- the purpose of the note
- any background information that might help
- how much time you’re allowed to spend on it
And these things are pretty important.
The truly frustrating part of this process is that often the Half Baked Delegator will then criticise you for not automatically knowing these things, as if you were simply supposed to know them automatically and it’s your fault that you didn’t.
The best way to deal with the ineffective delegator is to try and ask questions AT THE START. Waiting half a day while you muck around trying to guess what you’ve been asked to do is a waste of time – avoid it if at all possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because that’s your job. Find out the nature of the task properly, so you can do your job properly.
The Closed Door Policy
Often connected with the Half Baked Delegator, the Closed Door Policy simply isn’t around. Or if they are, they never seem like you can disturb them.
The result is that you have essentially no supervision, ever. You get asked to do a job and then you’re left to your own devices.
This can be good, to the extent that you have a clue what you’re doing and don’t enjoy micromanagement.
But if you want to run an idea past your supervisor before committing to a course of action or preparing an advice, then tough luck.
In fast moving matters, this can be a real problem. You don’t want to constantly pester someone who seems to be busy all the time, but neither do you want to simply fly ahead at your own risk without input from your supervisor.
Passive aggressive email updates don’t generally get the job done. Take a breath, knock on their door, and interrupt them. It’s really the only solution here. Their job is the supervise you, and your job is to serve your client. If their inaccessibility is getting in the way of your ability to serve your client then you’ve got to step up and solve that problem.
The Partner Who Just Wants to Do Law
At first glance this seems like a great thing, right? It’s always nice to have a supervisor who actually enjoys the law and legal practice.
However, if they enjoy those things but completely loathe the other parts of partnership, then it can get out of hand.
Firstly, the partner who is very focused on legal practice has a tendency to micromanage people, because they have an opinion about everything and nobody is prepared to make a call without their input. They send people on wild goose chases with 2 second brain spasms, and it’s very hard to get stuff done.
However, more critically, they also have a habit of ignoring other matters that require attention. Marketing, Culture problems, HR matters and administration fall by the wayside in favour of legal practice. That’s understandable (because to many lawyers, those things are ultra-boring) but not acceptable. If those things aren’t getting done, small issues can turn into gigantic problems, and the legally focused partner won’t even be aware that things are going wrong until it’s much harder to solve.
What’s Your Experience?
These are 6 categories, but there are many more.
There are some types of partner that are more difficult to be around than others, and some combinations of the above can be very hard work.
But hopefully here is a little nudge in the right direction about how you might identify and deal with each.
What do you think – what types of issues did I miss?