Managing Up for New Associates: What to Do When Everyone and No One is Your Boss

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managing up three ladders leading up into a pink cloud

You’re a new associate at a law firm. You’re excited to get to work and learn from some of the best lawyers around. But there’s one small problem: you have no idea who your boss is. You’re getting assigned work and have to be responsive to almost everyone who is more senior than you. But it also feels like no one is supervising you or knows what you’re up to. It’s like you report to everyone and no one! And you’re expected to do this thing called “managing up” that you’ve never heard of before!


Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The reality is that you will be supervised by multiple people (even on the same team), and they may have very different expectations and working styles. And despite all of this supervision, you’re the boss of your workload and of knowing when to say yes (and no!) to taking on work.


What is managing up?

But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, what is managing up anyway? It’s the process of ensuring that your supervisors’ needs are being met while also setting your own boundaries to produce the highest level of work product. Sounds easy, right? Managing up means that you don’t just execute on assignments but that you spend some time thinking about what’s being asked so that you can provide the best results. You might need to push back or ask more questions to help your supervisor better articulate their needs. And it means you’re proactive about managing your workload and communicating what you can handle and when you need help.


So, how can new associates manage up effectively? Bottom line: you need to have a client-service mindset, and in this case, the client isn’t who you might think it is. Forget the firm’s clients; your supervisor is now the client.


Treating your supervisor like your client means that you understand their goals, their needs, and their preferences. You have to know what is important to them and their expectations. You act proactively to give them the support they need instead of passively reacting to requests. How do you figure this all out? Either ask them directly or ask some other associates and staff who have worked with them if that’s too intimidating. Here are some questions that will get you started:

    • How do they prefer to communicate – email, video, in-person, or text?
    • Do they prefer frequent brief check-ins or fewer longer updates?
    • Are any particular deadlines or deliverables especially important to them?
    • When do they react positively to others?


Create Supervisor Profiles

Start a “supervisor profile” for each person who might assign you work and keep track of their preferences and expectations. This will help you remember things like “Max always responds to an email with a phone call, so just call with any questions” or “Tay prefers binders with single-sided pages so they can take notes on the back.”


Let’s turn up the dial. One of the tricky things you might encounter is effectively managing up when someone asks you to do something that either doesn’t make sense or that you don’t have time to do. With some well-placed questions, you can easily navigate both of these situations.


Even though you’re working with very smart people with lots of experience, senior lawyers frequently delegate projects without fully thinking them through. So you will be asked to do assignments in a way that might not make the most sense. But as a new associate, you might easily assume that the more senior person knows more than you – and it can be terrifying to suggest that maybe they don’t.


Ask Lots of Questions

To deftly maneuver in this situation, simply ask some open-ended questions that will get you more information about the project’s ultimate goal. Once you have that information, you’ll be more easily able to identify how you want to proceed. The key is to confirm that plan with your supervisor. If you were asked to do A, B, and C but think that X, Y, and Z would make more sense, try something like, “Now that I understand a bit more about what you’re looking for, I think it would make sense to do X, Y, Z. Is there anything about A, B, and C that would be missing with this approach? Does this approach work for you?”


Now, what to do when someone asks you to do something, and you’re already too busy? Resist the urge to decline new work flatly. Instead, come from the perspective of “yes, and.” As in, how can you say yes while setting expectations about your workload and what is reasonably possible?


Again, open-ended questions are your friends. Try something like, “I’d love to take this on. I’m pretty booked with other assignments for this week. When would you need this? How should I prioritize this against the other tasks I have for you? Would it be possible to get you a piece of this work in the short term and complete the rest of the task later this month?” Of course, let’s not ask these questions one right after the other, but listen to the answers and adjust accordingly! Often supervisors have a deadline in mind but are willing and able to push that deadline out if it means getting a higher quality work product and a less stressed out and more engaged associate.


If you take the time to get to know your supervisors’ preferences and expectations, you’ll be in a much better position to manage up effectively – even when things get tricky. By asking questions and being transparent about your workload, you can set yourself up for success while meeting your supervisor’s needs. When no one and everyone is your boss, managing up is key!

Katie Aldrich is the Director of Coaching & Program Strategy at Fringe Professional Development. Before joining Fringe, Katie practiced law for several years and worked in professional development at two large law firms. Katie holds coaching certifications through the NeuroLeadership Institute and the Co-Active Training Institute and certifications in dispute mediation through the Center for Understanding in Conflict and Cornell University.
Katie Aldrich, Senior Executive Coach & Trainer, Fringe PD


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