The estimable Mel Scott (who runs a great podcast) asks an interesting question:

   What’s the most important thing a lawyer should know when starting a new job?

My tip? Don’t spend all your time sucking up to supervisors & the highest people on your entity’s organization charts. Many times the most valuable people to know are on a lower level:

  1. When I was a teacher before becoming a lawyer, I always made it a point to get in good with the school’s janitor. This served me well.
  2. When I was a junior lawyer in civil service jobs I made it a point to get in good with key secretaries. This served me even better.
  3. When I became a wiser lawyer I made it a point to get to know the lower level de facto key movers and shakers in lower positions on the organization chart, the ones who knew where the bodies were buried and knew how to get things done. This served me best of all.

In brief, I always prioritized developing strong relationships with non-supervisors who could benefit me and help me accomplish things that would benefit the organization. This admittedly idiosyncratic approach to legal work in civil service legal jobs worked for me because it complemented my personality:

It’s hard for me to try to get ahead by sucking up to supervisors. Taking the contrary approach of developing lateral relationships works better for me:

  • Developing a good relationship with the school janitor helped me because it made any requests I made for assistance his top priority. Spending time making him my buddy gave me much more benefit than I would have gained by sucking up to supervisors.
  • Developing a good relationship with key secretaries, becoming friends with them, helped me in multiple ways. For example, more than once I found that when I had blown a deadline or made some other mistake my supervisor’s secretary would try to protect me by downplaying or making excuses for my error. I found this quite amazing. It benefitted me more in the long run than sucking up to supervisors would have done.
  • Finally, getting to know the key movers and shakers who did not rank high on the organization enabled me to get more accomplished. This let me help our organization’s mission, especially when I worked for civil service supervisors more interested in high performance appraisals than in creating the benefits their organization was supposed to provide.

The Bottom Line

I found that knowing who to know provided me giant benefits, especially when working in public service jobs, including the civil service. For years I thought this approach was something I had stumbled upon myself, something that worked for me, but would not work for others.

Only later did I discover that academics had provided a theoretical basis for my approach. It was something that would work for anyone savvy enough to understand it. A book from the Harvard Project on Negotiation, Getting It Done: How To Lead When You’re Not In Charge, helped me understand what I was doing and why it worked. These lessons would help many lawyers–especially those in civil service jobs who find their supervisors lacking.

More on this later.