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Among the most difficult things to discover when you are relatively new on the job is that you dislike the position or, perhaps worse, your supervisor drives you up the wall. But don’t despair—frequently there are steps you can take to improve the situation.
You could be dissatisfied with your job because you failed to conduct sufficient due diligence before you accepted the position, or your employer didn’t reveal information that might have changed your decision to join. But once you have made this discovery, it is still possible that you can renegotiate the terms of the job or, in the case of a difficult supervisor, learn to manage your boss more effectively.
Typically this process requires some wait time, which can be one of the hardest parts for lawyers new to the profession. While you may come to a realization within the first 90 days of a position that it isn’t what you had anticipated, you may have to wait a year to either renegotiate the work involved or, if that isn’t possible, to start looking for something else. And remember, with the economy being what it is, movement within the profession is not happening at any great rate. In addition, though, if really being oriented to the profession takes up to a year, you may find that your early disappointment is tempered with time and experience.
Therefore, as difficult as it may seem, it is wise to give the situation some time to evolve. So with that in mind, here is advice on how to proceed in turning things around.
Learn the Art of Managing Up
The term “managing up” refers to the process of managing one’s supervisor so that you build a successful working relationship. It is a familiar concept in the business world. However, unlike in other business settings, managing up in law firms has its own set of challenges because many young lawyers don’t have just one boss—they often have multiple supervisors. Understanding the unique perspective that each of them has on how they want their work done, and responding appropriately to their individual styles, can have a very positive impact on your career—just as failing to do so can short-circuit your success.
That said, your first year on the job is a chance to evaluate the people you are working for (just as they are evaluating the work you do), so you can determine how to structure the kinds of relationships that will lead to better work for you. Still, if you find a big disconnect between what work and experience you were assured of compared to what you are actually getting at present, don’t wait until the end of the year to speak up.
But before you do so, make sure you have done a good job of the work that has been assigned to you. If you have a good track record with your supervisors, they are more likely to offer you alternate, more sophisticated work. Remember always that the ultimate concern of any supervisor is presenting good work to clients, and your development will be secondary to that goal. So before you ask for other work, be certain you are taking your supervisor’s concerns into consideration.
Another advantage that time will provide is the chance to see how your supervisors interact with those more senior to you. If you like what you observe, the chances are good that it reflects well on your likely future working with them. The same goes for the negative. Don’t imagine for a minute that the people in charge of your career are likely to treat you significantly differently than your more senior counterparts.
Strategize to Increase Your Satisfaction
After you have been on the job for a couple or more months, you may find that you have a preference for working with one or two lawyers in particular.So why not strategize how to get more work from those individuals? In general, you should be attuned to each one’s level of business to better ensure the likelihood of work for them in the future. If you feel confident in the work product you have already delivered, then take the initiative and ask them for more opportunities to work on their matters.
Or perhaps you want to expand your experience by working in practice areas other than the one in which you are currently assigned. That is usually a good idea, since it can help make you more marketable during economic ups and downs and also give you a chance to decide which practice experience you enjoy most and where you excel. If you work in a large firm with distinct practice areas, this may take some added patience, since it may not be possible to work in other areas during the first year unless the firm has a rotation program. However, if you work in a small to midsize firm, you might be able to gain experience in a number of practice areas—while remembering that, once again, this is a negotiation.
Talk to trusted supervisors and more-senior associates about the options in the firm, and if you have a designated or informal mentor, discuss this topic with them so you take the right steps to get good work in other areas.
Tips for Dealing with Difficult Supervisors
Everyone has heard war stories about “the difficult partner”—the person who hands out a complex assignment on a Friday afternoon with an unrealistic Monday morning deadline attached, or the screamer who has been known to pitch files across the room. What happens if you find yourself working for this lawyer? For starters, learn as much as you can about his or her specific work requirements. Who in the firm has successfully negotiated a good relationship with this difficult boss? Consult with them and use their experience to shape your process of working with this challenging person. Figuring out how to manage this relationship can be stressful and it might take some time, but it may also yield a variety of useful results. While you may wonder why this type of behavior is tolerated in the work environment, what you may learn is that though such partners are critical, they may also have a reputation for training lawyers well. It is also likely that they have a significant book of business and good client development and retention skills. As a consequence, you can learn some excellent skills—plus, other members of the firm may see you as resilient if you manage this relationship effectively.
Remember, though, that each person deals differently with a difficult supervisor. While either possessing or developing a thick skin is a good tactic for some, others may learn that it isn’t a strategy that comes to them easily. If you find your coping mechanisms aren’t sufficient to keep your work life from being miserable, and there are no other appropriate supervisors available, you may need to look for a different job.
It’s a Small Community
So what to do if you decide that you need to look for a different job? Regardlessof whether you live on Manhattan Island, New York, or in Manhattan, Kansas, the legal community is both small and connected. Even in casual conversation, make sure that you never bad-mouth a current or former employer. In addition, if you are looking for a new position because of a poor fit between your needs and the culture of your current firm, you must be able to talk about the mismatch without being critical of the firm. While you should never be dishonest, you have to talk about your desire to leave with nuance. To help in this, make a list of all the positive experiences that you have had at your current place of employment. If there is an area of practice you would like to work more in but that option isn’t available at your current firm, this will be a good place to put emphasis when you discuss your reasons for looking elsewhere. And, of course, you also need to identify one or more people senior to you who can give you a positive reference about the work that you have done while there, even if the time has been relatively short.As you go through the next interview process, make sure to ask the questions that you may not have asked the first time out. Better yet, try to find out about potential new employers through your contacts and informal network. By now, your due diligence skills should be much improved.
Wendy L. Werner is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She is a member of the ABA LPM Section’s Law Practice Today Webzine Board.