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9 ways to stay neutral (and sane) when reporting to multiple lawyers

The job of managing a law office can be unpredictable, because you often don’t have the luxury of answering to just one boss. Instead, there are as many bosses as there are lawyers, and the lawyers don’t always get along with one another.

For that reason, your survival rests on neutrality, says management consultant Donna R. Gary of Legal Administrative Services in Sacramento.

According to Gary, the manager’s job is to be the glue that keeps everyone together. You can’t form an alliance with any single lawyer; instead, it’s important to keep the relationships with all the lawyers equal.

Here are nine ways you can remain neutral while navigating some sticky situations you might face in your firm.

1. Follow the chain of command

No matter how disagreeable a lawyer may be, it’s important to deal with the right person, says Gary, who is herself a former office manager. Don’t go to a favorite lawyer with something that’s in another’s realm.

For example, suppose a manager needs approval for a software purchase and Lawyer A has responsibility for the office’s technology. But Lawyer A is brusque and grouchy, so the manager takes the request instead to Lawyer B, where there’s a good working relationship.

Lawyer A is going to hear about it and isn’t going to be pleased. And the situation could worsen. Lawyer A could tell the others that the manager and Lawyer B are teaming up for some sort of mischief.

2. Let the money do the talking

Another common scenario: One lawyer wants a staffer to go and one wants the staffer to stay. The manager agrees with the latter.

The most logical approach is to illustrate the money side of it, Gary says. Show what the staffer’s salary is and point out that “yes, the office can get someone else for $500 a month less but that has to be weighed against the cost of going through several people to get the right one.”

Point out, too, that the office would have to give up X and Y services that the current staffer is doing well just to save the $500 a month.

Then back off and leave it to the lawyers to decide.

3. Keep everyone informed

When a firm is facing a cash crunch, a partner may deny being aware of the seriousness of the problem or accuse the administrator or finance department of mishandling things.

Gary’s advice: “Prepare summary financials that each partner gets weekly,” she says. These weekly updates will ensure that nobody is caught off-guard when money is tight.

4. Sidestep the criticism

What about when one lawyer criticizes another?

Don’t get caught in the middle and don’t join in, cautions Gary.

That’s not easy when the lawyer doing the criticizing is a favorite, but it’s a necessity. Count on it that the other lawyers will get wind of the conversation and lose trust in the manager.

The situation could also take an unexpected turn. If the manager later meets privately with Lawyer Criticized about some other matter, Lawyer Favorite could see the manager as a turncoat.

Stay out of the conversation, Gary warns. If that’s not possible, play the part of peacemaker. When the criticism starts, respond with, “That’s possible, Lawyer Favorite. But you have to admit that Lawyer Criticized does X really well, and that’s one of the things that makes this firm successful.”

Go no further. Don’t try to get the two to a point of agreement. “Just hope it will die there,” Gary says.

5. Present a solution and bow out

More political entanglement can come when simultaneous demands are made on the manager by several lawyers.

For example, one lawyer says, “Finish this project immediately,” whereupon another comes in with, “Put that project on the back burner and do this,” followed by another who demands to be put ahead of the other two.

The natural tendency is to favor whoever is easiest to get along with or even the one who hired the manager, Gary says. But making any choice at all can be political disaster.

The safest approach is to ask the three to sort it out among themselves. But don’t make it a cry for help. That’s weak. “Always propose a solution,” Gary says.

Send an e-mail that reads, “I have three tasks I need to get done right away, one for each of you. In my mind, it should be prioritized as A, B, and C, and here’s why. Let me know if you see it otherwise.”

With that, there can be no accusation that the manager has chosen sides. Instead, there’s a proposed solution based on objective criteria, and any argument has to be contained among the three lawyers.

6. Expose bullies

Have you ever worked with someone who is a bully to others in the office but is sweet as can be to the managing partner? “This duplicity creates a lot of problems in a firm,” says Gary.

Each time you observe an incident of bullying or one is reported, be sure to record all the details and then prepare a memo to the partner the bully is nice to with these details. “Remind the partner that this situation will create employment issues down the road,” says Gary. “It cannot be tolerated.”

7. Fall back and regroup—fast!

Another unfavorable scenario: The lawyer with whom the manager has worked most closely leaves, retires, or is ousted from the firm.

“It’s something to worry about,” Gary says. “It’s possible the manager won’t be there much longer.”

To maintain status quo, meet with the remaining lawyers immediately to map out a plan for the office. Draw up an outline of the work in progress and whatever issues need to be addressed. Tell how each item has been handled and ask how they want to proceed from there.

Focus on how best to serve the firm, but at the same time be subtle and point out the valuable things the manager has done while working with the former lawyer. For example, if the manager improved the collections by 15%, say so.

End the meeting with a positive comment such as, “I’m looking forward to working with all of you and doing what’s best for the office.”

“A manager who’s valued,” she says, “won’t be asked to leave because of one or two partners.”

8. Get training on how to deal with difficult people

It would be great if everyone we worked with was a decent human being. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case and at some point in your career you’re likely going to deal with a boss who is a jerk, narcissistic, or sexist. What can you do?

“I recommend taking classes on personality and traits of others,” says Gary. “You can discover what type of personality you are and learn about traits of others. This can be very helpful when dealing with difficult personalities.”

9. Maintain your integrity

Here’s the worst of all nightmares: A lawyer asks the manager to participate in some unethical or even illegal activity.

The scenario can be quite serious, Gary says.

Suppose Lawyer Sly is cheating the other lawyers and tells the manager to give him all the financial documents pertaining to some matter and not let the other lawyers see them. The manager gives him the documents, and then the others ask for them.

Once again, says Gary, the solution is to stay neutral.

Send an e-mail to all the lawyers—including the cheating one—and address the issue as a detached observer: “Many of you have asked me about the financial statements for X. Lawyer Sly told me to give them to him, which I did. Please contact Lawyer Sly for the statements.”

However, she adds, if it turns out that all the lawyers are shady, start looking for another job. Associating with an unethical organization can ruin the manager’s reputation and career.

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