A Rock and a Hard Place: Mastering Middle Management

Jade Smarda

Many of us have heard of some law schools offering a class called “Law Practice Management” or some variation thereof, presumably in response to the criticism that law school curriculum is devoid of anything that comes close to teaching practical skills. Such criticism departs from the traditional view that law schools should teach future lawyers how to think (not practice), but continues to spark debate nonetheless. Unlikely to enter the debate any time soon, though, is whether law schools should offer a course called “Law Practice Middle Management.” If the traditional view is that teaching students how to manage an IOLTA account (interest on lawyers trust account) or secure appropriate malpractice insurance is beyond the scope of a law school’s duties to students, then there can be no question that teaching students how to become effective middle managers definitely falls outside the scope.

Without affirmatively taking a side in the broader debate, it certainly can be argued that law practice middle management is not appropriate for law school curriculum because (again, arguably) there is little different about mastering middle management in a legal professional setting versus any other professional setting. Middle managers oversee others while being overseen themselves. Middle managers might oversee their friends or legal professionals who are older. Colleagues provide the proverbial “hard place,” while upper management, who sets high standards from up above, gladly supplies the “rock.” If you find yourself in between, here are a few tips that might help you wiggle your way out (or at least give you an air pocket).

Budget Your Day Accordingly

Lawyers with a healthy caseload do not usually have extra time on their hands. This is true for the young lawyer immersed in research and drafting as well as for the more experienced lawyer immersed in, for example, trial preparation. Middle managers often dabble in everything their colleagues do, with the added responsibility of coordinating multiple moving parts before upper management sees a final piece of work-product. What’s more, a moving part does not move until the middle manager sets it in motion. The work does not assign itself. After receiving marching orders from upper management that are not always perfectly conveyed due to time or other types of constraints, the middle manager must untangle the orders; figure out if, how, and where it is possible to slice the project into pieces; determine the appropriate person to whom to delegate; and then arrange to have a conversation with that person. Getting organized for such a conversation often takes longer than the conversation itself, so it is critical to budget time accordingly.

Also, it is important to budget time for answering questions. This is a less pressing issue when the middle manager is overseeing only one or two people, but what happens if, for example, the middle manager is overseeing a massive document review project where sometimes dozens of people are knocking on the door, or otherwise trying to get his or her attention, with questions? What happens when, despite being great questions, they distract the middle manager from the task at hand (causing tires to spin when the task at hand is resumed)? Also, what if the middle manager winds up constantly duplicating effort because questions from team members overlap? It is important to figure out an efficient way to communicate, and to make that expectation clear to members of the broader team. Sometimes it makes sense to have a set time for daily team meetings for purposes of Q&A. Other times, it makes better sense to update and circulate regularly a master Q&A spreadsheet, displaying all questions (with answers to questions) asked to date that team members should check before wandering into the middle manager’s office with variations on the same questions that have already been asked. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but, without a system, middle managers wind up doing themselves (and, more importantly, their clients) a disservice by duplicating efforts and wasting time.

Set Interim Deadlines

One of the most altruistic reasons to set interim deadlines is for the purpose of training. Chances are, the middle manager is overseeing less experienced attorneys or legal professionals who may be taking their first crack at drafting a contract, preparing a summary judgment motion, etc. Providing feedback on a rolling basis that the younger attorney can study and implement will make the younger attorney’s work-product on the immediate project—and future projects—that much better.

A less altruistic but important reason to set interim deadlines is to make sure that the attorney being overseen is on track and not procrastinating. Perhaps selfishly, the middle manager needs to avoid being given garbage at the eleventh hour that requires pulling an all-nighter to fix. Even where procrastination is not a concern, setting interim deadlines to make sure that work-in-progress is moving in the right direction is always critical. If a middle manager is delegating work, then chances are that work is part of a bigger project with those multiple moving parts referenced above. Checking on progress by way of interim deadlines allows the middle manager to ensure that the work-product is on the right track and will ultimately fit into the final piece that the middle manager is, in all likelihood, in charge of completing before review by upper management.

Keep Your Team in the Loop

Younger attorneys working on a bigger project often cannot see the forest for the trees, sometimes at no fault of their own. To keep costs down, they are often not copied on emails, on the phone with the expert, or sitting in on critical meetings with, for example, the client. A middle manager who is unselfish with the big picture and noteworthy developments often helps the younger attorney understand the goals of a project and, ultimately, turn in more informed and polished work-product.

Depending on what makes the most sense given the size and complexity of the legal work at hand, to ensure the team sees the big picture, consider having weekly meetings or circulating an action item list showing which tasks everyone is completing (and future tasks yet to be assigned). Sometimes this approach will spark an idea in someone else that improves the project as a whole, or will otherwise encourage independent thought about the direction of a project. At a minimum, making sure information is shared is the equivalent of telling colleagues that they are an essential part of a team.

Working with the support of a team, the middle manager just might be capable of lifting up that rock to create an air pocket, even if it is just a small one.

Jade Smarda

Jade Smarda is an attorney with Faruki Ireland & Cox PLL in Dayton, Ohio.