Sometimes, your supervising partner can be a bastion of legal knowledge, expert skills and common sense.
And other times, they can drive you up the wall.
This article is about the latter times. I’m ignoring people who scream and shout – they have obvious problems that go beyond rational thinking and logical solutions, and really need to be the subject of their own article. Instead, I’m focusing on the kinds of supervisors who are generally normal people and OK to get along with, but just have some of those characteristics or work habits that push your buttons (or – if they don’t at first, then they will later).
Instead of just complaining (which would be fun all by itself) I thought I’d have a bit of a punt at helping you out by proposing some solutions as well.
Of course, it’s not necessarily just partners – it’s really anyone who supervises you who might have some (hopefully not all) of these characteristics.
Let’s begin with all the usual stuff:
- No, none of these are based on anybody I know. And if you share this article, I’m sure that none of these are based on anybody you know either – they’re just helpful tips.
- These relate to people, who are complicated, and therefore it’s up to you to make good decisions in these situations;
- If you think any of these suggestions will get you fired, don’t do them unless you are 100% certain that you are ethically obliged to (duh). You may still get fired, but sometimes that’s the price you pay for upholding your ethics. Sorry if that’s new news to you.
Partner Problem 1 – The Absentee
Here we have a supervisor who is out of the office more than they are in. Of course, if they are doing helpful things then that’s rarely a problem. The problem starts to intrude when you need their guidance on something complex they have asked you to do (normally which has a deadline) and you can’t get them for an entire day, or days, on end. And, of course, even when they are in the office you simply can’t get them to pay attention to you because of the 37 other people shouting for their attention.
Email is handy here, so it can depend if they are checking that and being responsive on it (no guarantee). But really, the solution here is two fold.
First, you need to manage client expectations properly – hopefully this issue (which can be temporary, although sometimes it seems to be chronic) hasn’t been combined with issue 2 below, but you need to make sure they client has realistic delivery expectations for whatever it is you are doing. That doesn’t work for Court timetables of course.
So the next step is to make sure that you have done everything absolutely possible to minimise the amount of input you need from the partner in order to get them to “sign off” on whatever the product is.
That could include:
- checking any research is right
- ensuring there are no typos in products
- making sure that advices have actually answered the questions asked;
- asking another partner or senior lawyer about any discrete issues that fall within their expertise;
You might also find this article about what to do in an emergency when your boss is out helpful for this occasion.
Problem Partner 2 – The Optimist
This generally comes up in one of two ways:
- irrationally short timeframes that the partner promises to a client without asking you about your capacity;
- massively under quoting a job.
Let’s accept the fact that you may not be involved in the creation of either of the two problems, although if you are then you’ve had your chance to speak up and you should have. Under quoting is a big problem and can lead to bills not getting paid, which is a real pain in the neck down the track.
In relation to timeframes, the first thing you need to do is to figure out if what’s been asked can be done. If you’re simply stuffed and there is no way to do it, then see if someone else has capacity to do it. You might also be able to see about using more junior staff or secretarial support on smaller pieces of the task if that’s possible. The main thing though is to tell your boss you’re concerned about the timeframe that’s been promised. I recognise here that some bosses don’t go well with that kind of news, but it’s better to do it up front (in my view) than simply to kill yourself trying to get it done and not succeed. So if you’ve realistically shaped up how much time is required, sought any rational assistance and still don’t think it’s possible – you need to tell someone, so they can tell the client.
Estimates are very similar, but a bit more tricky because of the amount of guess work they involve, much of which will be based on experience rather than science. Here I think the best bet is to ensure that you are, while doing the job, keeping a close eye on the work in progress and the moment it becomes clear the estimate is wrong – tell your partner. Second guessing them up front (especially when it’s already gone to the client) might not do anything unless you are confident enough to back it up with something tangible.
Problem Partner 3 – The Laggard
You know that partner who collects unsigned advices and documents in their office and uses them to hide their face from the public behind an ever growing pile? This is them.
Client expectations is the big one here, because it’s pretty common for many clients to avoid calling the partner and instead call the poor junior solicitor who has done their job but is waiting on someone to settle their documents. Just like in issue 1, managing client expectations on timeframes is critical, because delivery of service times is one of the biggest issues that clients have with lawyers.
Of course, it’s hardly easy to predict in advance how long something will take, but to the extent possible add some fat into the estimate to allow for this partner’s slowness. You then need to make sure that you give whatever it is to the partner in a timely fashion before the deadline. Handing a 12 page letter of advice to a partner the day it’s due after lunchtime and expecting that they will have time to review it that day is probably a bit rich, especially if it’s complex and they might want to actually think about it.
The next thing is to make sure you’ve covered off on everything humanly possible. Because if the partner reviews it and you’ve forgotten an entire section of an Act, or neglected to cover something, then both you and your timeframe are going to be pushed back. At most you want to aim for some style changes that can be pushed through, so the thing can be signed and sent out.
Finally, sometimes things get “stuck” because there is a concern about the product or an issue of some kind. Just ask after a reasonable time has passed – “hey how’s that advice/letter/pleading/submission going for Bob – he’s waiting eagerly for it” might prompt an earlier discussion that you can deal with.
You can’t sit on your hands with these – ensure you are following up the person periodically.
Problem Partner 4 – The Disorganised
A flurry of activity, none of it directed, and although incredibly busy often unfocused. Often a problem for partners because they are interrupted a lot, and so it can be difficult to keep focus on the appropriate things.
Keep copies of things, and make sure everything is emailed as well as printed. The first is to speed things up when you inevitably get told that something was lost, and the second is for your protection should your polite reminders and pop-ins be disregarded in the event of a disaster.
However – the more organised you are, the easier you will find it to deal with this (ironically) because you will have answers to questions, access to documents, and swift ability to get what is required without the partner needing to get their act together.
Be careful of timeframes and key dates though – don’t assume the partner has diarised anything important – make sure by putting in there yourself (or having their secretary do it if you can’t). Then put a reminder in. And THEN ensure that for any critical date you stay on top of them in person so far as it coming up is concerned.
Problem Partner 5 – The Last Minute Wonder
You got the instructions, are doing the job, have had numerous conversations with the partner along the way – and then at the last second they throw in a curveball like “oh hey, did you check section X of the Whatever Act – might be relevant here?”.
Like a number of other solutions – make sure you’ve done your job. That means ensuring you have understood the instructions and exactly what you’ve been asked to do, have reviewed any research to ensure that it’s accurate, and have answers to these kinds of last minute questions. Depending on your role, that might include having discussions with the client or a barrister.
In short – pretend to be your partner and ask all the questions that you can think of which they might ask at the last minute – and have answers ready. You can’t know everything, but you can do your darndest.
Problem Partner 6 – The Trustless
You are asked to do up a research memo and a draft advice to the client. The partner then reads everything, including all the cases, and re-writes your letter to basically say the same thing. They might ask you about things that you have done but they think you missed, and they might charge a lot of money for it and write your time off – this leaves you thinking “why did they ask me to do it in the first place?”.
The solution really depends on the problem. If you have a history of bad decisions (sorry – but some people do) then you need to find out ASAP and try and deal with it. It might, however, be as simple as they didn’t think your advice was well prepared and that concerned them that your research was also wrong. Sometimes this issue is simply because the partner themselves doesn’t understand the area very well and so they have a heightened level of concern and will second guess everything.
As best you can, your role is to perform your job diligently and well, and to build up confidence and trust not only in your clients, but also in your supervisors. Over time a consistent approach to delivery of excellent results will normally do the trick. There’s not much more you can do than that!
Problem Partner 7 – The Overconfident
This is the property partner who brazenly tells a client that they should sue and they have excellent prospects of winning, and as it turns out that’s completely wrong. Perhaps it’s the “jack of all trades” that gives an off the cuff advice about taxation law, despite knowing nothing about it. Normally these are the senior partners, and they are right often enough that it feeds their confidence.
Confidence, of course, is not a bad thing. However, your duty is to your client, not to your partner’s ego. If they have given wrong advice, then it needs to be corrected ASAP, and it’s your job to tell them if you’re the person who comes to that view.
That said – don’t be a schmuck about it. Perhaps you can get the advice to the client in ways that are less embarrassing for the partner in question. Most partners who find themselves here are also smart enough to know what they should and should not say, so frequently it won’t be a direct contradiction so much as an actual advice taking into account all the issues.
Of course, overconfidence can appear in many ways, but really you only need to care when it’s impacting your duty to your client.
Do What’s Right
The answer to each of the issues is pretty simple – do what’s right. So far as it is up to you, if you can discharge your duty without being unnecessarily mean spirited, then do that. The “I told you so” approach doesn’t fit that bill, and isn’t very wise given that these people pay your wages.
Obviously some of these traits are frustrating over time, but you’re not going to find many people who don’t have some of these on occasions. Your job is to roll with the punches, ensure you’re doing the best you can for your client, and not to sweat the stuff that you can’t control.