New Clerk on the Block: Learning to Manage

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a law clerk is working with law student externs. I truly enjoy guiding externs through their legal research and writing assignments, watching their skills improve over time, and serving as a mentor to help them achieve great things even after they leave our chambers. When supervised effectively, externs can also lighten the workload for law clerks.

But supervising law students is also one of the most challenging parts of being a new attorney. And, unfortunately, law school doesn’t teach you how to be a good manager. In fact, it turns out that some of our lawyerly traits may actually hinder our ability to manage others. The legal profession’s failings on this front are especially disheartening in light of the fact that management can make or break attorney satisfaction.

The good news is effective management is a skill that can be developed over time, and it’s never too soon to begin thinking about the kind of manager YOU want to be.  

In this post, I will share some of the lessons that I’m still learning as a new attorney who supervises law students. Although I’ve learned these lessons in my role as a law clerk, I imagine that much of what I’ve learned is equally applicable to new attorneys across the board—from those who work at law firms and nonprofits to those who work in government or in-house.

Think about managers you have liked working for in the past and try to emulate their management style.

When I first started my clerkship, I took some time to think about the wonderful (and not so wonderful) managers I have worked for throughout my life, and I tried to pinpoint the specific qualities that made those managers so great to work for. After some reflection, I concluded that the effective managers I knew had done three things: they got to know me on a personal level, they took an active interest in my professional development, and they trusted me to take complete ownership of an assignment without micromanaging. I found this exercise helpful, and I have since tried to incorporate some of those habits into my own management style. 

If you’re just starting your first post-grad legal job, chances are you will have to supervise others in some capacity very soon. Before you do, I encourage you to reflect on your own experiences with good bosses, identify the qualities that made them so effective, and practice integrating those qualities into your own management repertoire. For example, did they take the time to explain the specifics of an assignment up front? Did they motivate you with praise, inspiration, fear, or maybe a mix of all three? Did they communicate with you regularly? Answering these questions will give you a good head start when it comes time for you to manage others.

But this is just the beginning! The qualities we value in managers differs from person to person and, as a result, you will need to continuously adapt your style to fit the needs of junior employees with diverse personality types, learning styles, life experiences, and strengths. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for effective management. 

Be authentic.

Although it’s useful to integrate others’ effective management techniques into your own style, you should also stay true to your own personality. For example, if you’re naturally an introvert, you don’t need to adopt a management style that requires you to uncomfortably pop into everyone’s office throughout the day to make small talk. People will likely sense that you are being disingenuous, and will trust you less as a result. Remember that effective managers come in all different flavors: they can be introverts or extroverts, theoretical or practical, detail-oriented or big-picture-oriented. So have the courage to be your authentic self!

Give positive, specific, and frequent feedback.

Even though effective managers have varied personality types and styles, they do share a couple of common practices. Perhaps most importantly, they remember to frequently provide both positive and constructive feedback, praising junior members of their team for doing a good job while communicating concrete suggestions for future improvement.

You were in law school not too long ago, so you know how much law students crave thorough feedback. The letters and numbers that make up our law school grades give us some idea of where we stand in relation to others, but they don’t tell us how to improve so we can do better next time. That’s why giving detailed feedback to law student externs and summer associates is so crucial.

For example, I try not to simply tell my externs to “be more concise.” If you encountered this advice as a law student, you already know that this feedback is too vague to be helpful. Instead, I encourage them to question what each citation in a string cite really contributed to their argument, to replace a lengthy explanation of a case with an ultra-effective paren, and to cut out redundant words. Although this approach will require more up-front effort on your part, it will ultimately result in better work product for the extern’s next assignment and, in turn, increase overall efficiency for your organization.   

Keep the lines of communication open.

I get it: It’s tough to take time out of your hectic day, especially if you just started a stressful job, to answer a law student’s questions about an assignment. But in the long run keeping the lines of communication open will ensure that the person you are supervising trusts you, comes to you when they need guidance, turns in better work product, and has a more enjoyable experience.

This is a lesson that I am still learning, but I have found some practical ways to balance my need to get uninterrupted work done with the need to supervise externs. For example, I have found that it is helpful to have a standing weekly meeting with the person I am supervising. I tell them to bring any questions they have to that meeting, and then give them my undivided attention during that time. This method results in less interruption to my own workflow, while simultaneously ensuring that my externs get help when they need it. 


I hope you have enjoyed this quick primer on how to be a more effective manager. I would love to hear your thoughts on the qualities that effective managers possess, as well as practical management tips you have found useful in your own life. Please share your thoughts with me in the comments!

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