Biglaw, General Counsel, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

Inside Straight: Managing Up

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

The Harvard Law School career services office recently asked me to record a podcast on the subject of “managing up.” This got me to thinking: What the heck is “managing up”?

Fortunately, the woman from career services explained. She was interested in discussing how, as a junior lawyer, you manage the senior lawyer who’s supervising your work.

That’s not anything I’d thought about before, but (as readers of this column well know) that hasn’t stopped me yet, so I said I’d be happy to help with the podcast. Now I’m thinking about what I might actually say.

I’ve tentatively decided that the key to managing up is exactly the same as the key to managing down. In fact, it’s the key to basically every interpersonal relationship you’ll ever have: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Think about it: How should you manage down? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not have me, the father of two young kids at the time, fly to Cincinnati for what should be a five-minute meeting set for 11 a.m. on October 31, and then postpone the meeting for an hour, and then postpone it for another couple of hours, and then postpone it again, and then, after everyone else has headed home or to the airport to take their kids trick-or-treating that night, finally tell me at 6:30 that we’ll have to reschedule our meeting. If that ever happened, I might still remember the incident, with lingering resentment, eighteen years later….

Or consider my former law firm partner Bob. (I call him Bob because . . . well . . . his name is Bob.) He would occasionally realize, late on a Friday afternoon, that he suddenly needed the answer to a legal question by Monday morning. He would start dialing for associates at 5:30 p.m. No one would answer, and Bob would sit at his phone cursing: “Damned lazy associates. Why is no one at his desk when it’s only 5:30?” Walking back to your office, you’d pass associates chuckling in the hallway: “Did you see that Bob was dialing around this afternoon, trying to destroy someone’s weekend? You’d be nuts to answer that phone call.” That’s proof (well, at least some evidence) that treating others unfairly can come back to haunt you.

If you want to manage down effectively, treat people with the respect with which you’d like to be treated.

Managing up is exactly the same. Although you’re acting without the supervisory power, the key is still to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes.

How should you treat your supervisor? Do unto your supervisor as you would like someone to do unto you.

After working on a project for a couple of weeks, do not leave a partner highlighted photocopies of six cases as you head out the door on Friday evening, with a note explaining that you didn’t have time to do comprehensive research, have out-of-town plans and are now leaving the office, but figured that the partner could read the six cases, do a little follow-up research, and figure out the law for himself. If you ever did that, I might still remember the incident, with lingering resentment, eight years later.

How should associates manage partners? Figure out what you would need if you were the partner, and provide it. Answer the question posed correctly and comprehensively, explaining areas of ambiguity or possible areas for additional research that you’ve (intelligently) chosen not yet to explore. Draft notes for a witness interview that list the topics for discussion, identify specific questions that ought to be posed, and attach key documents, tabbed and highlighted, so the reader can understand the contents quickly and easily. Draft a brief that is to all appearances absolutely final work product, with a cover note explaining arguments you’ve chosen to omit or that have weaknesses, unhelpful cases that the brief does not address, or other things that would matter to a concerned editor of the brief.

How should outside lawyers manage clients (which is effectively “managing up”)? Figure out what you would need if you were the client, and provide it. If the client is wrestling with a problem, offer three alternative solutions, explain the pros and cons of each, and recommend the preferred solution. If you need settlement authority in a case, write a memo that honestly explains the strengths and weaknesses of the case, provides the amount of detail that you would want if you were in the client’s shoes, and send it out. Maybe include an executive summary, so a short-form of your recommendation is easily available for folks interested in the pending case, but not directly involved in the decision whether to settle.

How should in-house lawyers manage clients (which again is “managing up”)? Figure out what the client needs, and provide it.

How should you manage your in-house supervisor? Same deal. The CEO? Same deal. The board of directors? Same deal. God Almighty? Same deal (although perhaps that omniscience thing slightly alters the calculus).

Apart from who holds the power, the main difference between managing down and managing up is that a person who’s managing down has often actually stood in the other guy’s shoes. When I was managing down as a law firm partner, I had actually been an associate, so I had a sense of how an associate would like to be treated. As an associate, you haven’t yet been a partner, so you can only guess how the partner would like to be treated. If you’re an in-house lawyer, you’ve probably never been an in-house business person, so you can only guess how the business person would like to be treated. And so on.

But guessing is not that hard. What does a person want? A quality work product, delivered on time in a useful form, perhaps accompanied by occasional progress reports along the way. If you lack necessary information or time needed to perform the task, then ask questions or explain the situation. A reasonable partner/supervisor/client/CEO/deity will understand. No one expects perfection. People expect only the best work product you can provide and to be treated as you would like to be treated if you were in the other guy’s shoes.

That’s a start. With just a little more work, I’ll be ready for the podcast.

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link).

You can reach him by email at

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