Help! The Partner Thinks I’m an Idiot


We are pleased to welcome Katie Slater to the blog today. Katie Slater is a recovering attorney turned professional coach who helps lawyers and other analytical types with their professional development. She’s also one of the Catapult Conference speakers.

Today she shares with you one of the hurdles she had to overcome as a young lawyer — how to deal with a senior partner who thinks you’re an idiot. Welcome, Katie! 

Life as a young lawyer with a job at a law firm has its challenges, some known, and others not so apparent. Even though you’ve survived law school, passed the bar, and got (and thus far kept) a job, you encounter new, and often unexpected, hurdles.

One that I didn’t expect to face but did (and I hear about a lot when I speak to younger attorneys) is encountering the senior partner who just thought I was an idiot and wasn’t thinking. It was tough, as I knew that I didn’t know a lot and he, of course, did. It didn’t help that he was probably one of the top 5 practitioners in our admittedly super small field!

Having had various challenges in my academic career, I wasn’t unfamiliar with being not great at something. However, what was hard was the fact that I was trying hard, and thinking even harder, and just couldn’t get there given my knowledge gap — and the partner was really frustrated with me. (In fact, I won “most insults” in the contest my year-mates and I had!)

So, what do you do if the partner you are working for is getting frustrated with you and not giving you a whole lot to work with?

Talk to Them

Crazy idea, right? Talk to the person that isn’t treating you like a normal person? Yup. They do forget that we are people — not necessarily intentionally. There are a variety of reasons for this:

  • One, many partners are introverted and have a hard time connecting to new people.
  • Two, they get so focused on their work and client demands that they sometimes do forget that they are dealing with other, relatively intelligent, human beings.

Ask if you can talk to him or her for a minute. Keep it short, and say something along the lines of:

I know I frustrate you sometimes. I want you to know that I am working as hard as I can on this, and I don’t want to frustrate you, as it’s not fun for you or me. What can I do to be less frustrating? Is there something I can bone up on, or concentrate on? What knowledge gap could I read more about? What could I do better to help you more?

Then, shut up and listen hard for the nuggets of gold, and ignore the mud.

Telling them that you are interested in getting better, and interested in what you are doing, really does go a long way to bridge the gap with people who’ve sacrificed a lot to get where they are and often really like what they are doing.

Get Creative

I’ll admit, I was far too intimidated to have this kind of conversation with my senior partner. So, I used my analytical skills to try to figure out for myself where we were getting disconnected.

Thinking it through, I realized that he really couldn’t tell where my knowledge stopped and that my thinking couldn’t carry me through. So, I decided to show him.

One night, once I got the document we were working on as far as I could, I stopped and wrote down questions for him. For this particular transaction, we were setting up an elaborate system of trusts in a pretty novel way, and I wasn’t sure how the interaction between them should work. So, I wrote down how I had gotten to the point I got in the document, where I was getting stuck, and what I needed his input on. I also offered thoughts for solutions based on hypothetical client needs and dealing with legal issues I could see.

At 2 am on the first night, I ended up with 20 questions! I left the questions on top of the draft of the document in his in-tray, and grabbed some shut-eye.

The next morning, he bounded into my office after reviewing the document and said — this is great! We did our usual morning review but this time, the insults were far less (there were still one or two — can’t change a lifetime of habits overnight!), and I could tell that he was much less frustrated. Plus, he could finally “see” that I was thinking, and that really what I needed was his knowledge.

Our relationship greatly improved after that. It took, however, me taking the initiative and getting over the hurdle on my own.

The good news? I also learned a lot more this way, both about the law, and that I could stand up to more senior folks to get what I needed and to help them — giving me more control over my career.

— – —
Thanks, Katie! Great advice on handling a sticky (yet common) situation.

You can meet Katie in person in San Francisco at the Catapult Conference on March 1st. Don’t miss it!

And you can always connect with Katie at Career Infusion Coaching, or on Twitter at @CareerInfusion.

Topics:  Career Development, Law Firm Associates, Law Firm Partners, Law Practice Management, Young Lawyers

Published In: Professional Practice Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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