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How to Develop a Professional Relationship with Your Supervisor

Johnny Derogene

How to Develop a Professional Relationship with Your Supervisor

“Thou shalt know thy judge!” In an advanced trial advocacy course, my instructor uttered those five potent words. They were followed by an alarmingly long silence. The instructor, then, proceeded to elaborate and emphasize the importance for a trial attorney to “know” the judge before whom appearance is due—not through meeting for coffee or lunch, but by becoming familiar with the judge’s preferences.How do they prefer to communicate or receive filings? How does the judge prefer counsel to move about the well of the courtroom?

While I do not pretend to compare one’s supervisor to a judge in the literal sense, law students and newer attorneys alike should, whenever feasible, strive to foster a professional relationship with their supervisors and senior attorneys. Over time, these experienced colleagues can become valuable resources for newer attorneys.

After working with more than a dozen supervisors and senior attorneys so far in my career, I offer guidance to law students and newer attorneys on how to develop positive professional relationships with supervisors.

Cultivate a Connection

Personal interactions may improve the working relationship for both the supervisor and the law student or newer attorney. In the age of hybrid and remote working, when colleagues may have reduced in-person interaction, the working relationship may be limited to the supervisor assigning projects and the law student or attorney responding as needed.

In this scenario, the upside is that the job is getting done. The downside, however, is that the supervisor and the law student or attorney may not get to know one another: Personality gets lost, which may hinder a positive work relationship. When possible, law students and newer attorneys should attempt to cultivate a personal connection with their supervisor. For example, inviting your supervisor for coffee or lunch can go a long way toward building rapport. Respectful discussions of topics unrelated to work product, such as professional journeys, hobbies, travel experiences, and favorite sports, can help you and your supervisor get to know one another and build a bond. As you allow your supervisor to get to know you better on a personal level, just keep in mind the supervisor-employee relationship.

Be Mindful of Your Supervisor’s Time and Preferences

Supervisors and senior attorneys are busy professionals. One way a law student or an attorney may show consideration for a busy professional’s time is by being mindful of their preferences, such as preferred method of communication. Does your supervisor prefer communicating via email, over the phone, or in their office? Should you ask questions as you have them or save them for when you can discuss them all at once in a meeting? Adhering to your supervisor’s personal preferences may facilitate a healthy relationship because it allows your supervisor to accommodate your questions and concerns while maintaining their own workload.

Ask Questions and Keep Your Supervisor Updated on Progress

There is no such thing as a stupid question. If you have a question about an assignment that you cannot find the answer to on your own, seek your supervisor’s guidance before it is too late. Your supervisor may be helpful in guiding you toward the answer. Say that your supervisor assigns a project that will take a few weeks to complete. It may be helpful to send your supervisor a courtesy update over the course of the project to inform the supervisor of your progress and whether you believe the deadline is realistic.

Use Your Email’s Subject Line to Your Advantage

Through the course of your working relationship with your supervisor, you may have urgent and non-urgent questions or concerns. For example, a question about an assignment due in two weeks may be an urgent one, while a question about the office’s holiday gathering may not be as urgent. For questions or concerns you deem not urgent, beginning the subject line of an email with “[Not Urgent]” followed by the content of the subject line may tell your supervisor to continue with other priorities before reading your email.

Knowing your supervisor on both a professional and a respectful personal level may lead to a more fruitful professional relationship. Knowing your supervisor also means respecting their preference for keeping the working relationship strictly of a work-related nature. That said, I would argue that sprinkling even a little personal connection or personality in your interactions would improve most supervisor-employee relationships.