Management is generally performed by managers

Chapter 2 of a previous rant (actually, more like Chapter 2,000, but only the second installment to be published), which I fear may become a story rather Dickensian in length:

An update: since our heroine’s last adventure, our team’s data entry/workflow tracking person (in a normal law firm, she’d basically be a docket clerk) walked out with no notice in the middle of the day, never to return. (To be charitable to my boss, though, it wasn’t her decision to tell the poor girl that she’d be hired as a permanent employee after 3 months, and then string her along for nearly a year, but still.)

Also since our heroine’s last adventure, one of the two contact people at our team’s largest client has gone on maternity leave. Maternity leave is one of those issues one normally knows about several months in advance, is it not? If one is managing a client relationship, might one not want to tease out whatever the client’s backup plan is, especially if the person going on leave has several years of specialized experience that can’t be covered by a temp, and the work is likely to fall to one’s own team in some way or another, correct? Might it not be wise to consider starting to compile a list of transition issues before, say, TWO FUCKING WEEKS AFTER the maternity leave starts?

So in the interim, I’ve become the alter ego of our client’s HR rep while she’s out on leave, which means that I’m responsible for following up to make sure that everyone understands what information we need to do our jobs (drafting work visa petitions) and that the information is provided in a timely manner, so that the client’s personnel can come to the U.S. and do their jobs or remain in the U.S. without falling out of legal status. I know nothing whatsoever about the client’s HR processes. Initially, I was expected to answer questions about information to which I had no access. I’ve spent the past 2 weeks running around like a chicken with her head cut off, trying to draft template e-mails and have my boss and the other client HR manager review and approve them so I can DO MY JOB. And the sad part is that my job has been as gatekeeper for new billable work for the entire team, so that if my job isn’t being done, then none of us has any work to do, and the Managing Partner (who has been on everyone’s heads about how much billing has fallen off the past few months) will not be a happy camper. And if he’s not a happy camper, then believe me, nobody is a happy camper.

It would be different if my boss just gave me a task and leeway on how I feel it’s appropriate to accomplish it, but she won’t, because she is a control freak. It would also be different if she would actually address the team’s questions, so we can do our work, but she won’t. It would be even better if she were a proactive manager, but she never addresses macro-issues until about 2 weeks after they become emergencies. This morning I stuck my head into her office and begged, as I’ve done several times a week for the past several weeks, for the team to meet and hash out all these process issues so we can actually get some work done. She agreed that it was a good idea, and asked me to compile a list of everyone’s questions. I spent half the morning doing that, and then forwarded the compiled list around to the team for comments, with a request for what day/time was best for a meeting. (The other indicator that we all need some guidance: every single member of the team has come into my office to ask me some process-related question at least a couple of times in the past few days.)

The boss’ response to my e-mail? A complete 180. She ignored 75% of the list, and said that she was hoping for answers for the other 25% (I have no idea from where), and apparently doesn’t think there’s any point in having a meeting, or any other actual form of two-way communication for that matter.

Now I never signed on to be an HR rep; I’m a paralegal, and a damn good one. But if I’m stuck being an HR rep temporarily, then I need the tools to be a GOOD HR rep, dammit! Isn’t part of being a competent manager making sure that your team has what they need to be effective in their jobs? Well if that’s the case, then I’m apparently my own manager these days, because nobody else sure is…I’ve basically been making up crap as I go along.

Any ideas? I’m flailing in the wind here.

Forget your boss. You can’t hold the meeting, fine – hold an e-meeting, sending all the questions and answers by email until consensus is reached in your group. If information you need is at the client company, pick ONE person there who knows everything, compile everything you need to know, and send it to that person. Do not copy your boss, do not mention her name. When you get the answers you need, make sure that everyone who co-operated gets a copy of the information. Then, do your job.

The boss will say everything is wrong, because she is a control freak and you denied her control. Negotiate the amount of re-working necessary, and do it. She may find out what you’re up to before it’s done, in which case you may be in for some grief. Only you can decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks, but it’s usually “easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

Can’t do that; my boss would have my head on a platter. As a paralegal, I cannot make decisions that require specific legal judgements. That’s why my boss is a lawyer. I could easily be fired for that kind of insubordination, because the firm’s collective ass is on the line if one of their employees gives in correct legal advice.

At this point I have three basic choices:

  1. Go to my boss and try once again to have a reasoned discussion of why we all need to have some guidance and/or know what the hell is going on;
    1. Try my darndest to do what I can with the small shreds of guidance I have now, fail badly, and look like a complete idiot, which will damage our client relationship, possibly irreparably; or
    1. Go over my boss’ head and explain the situation to the Managing Partner, who even if he doesn’t give a damn about staff morale, should at least give a damn about the potential impact of all this on the bottom line.

If anyone sees other available alternatives, please let me know. (I should note that we are contractually bound to some very tight processing times for this particular client, which we will in no way be able to meet if this situation isn’t cleared up, and quickly.)

In any case, none of this is getting decided tonight, as I have a splitting headache, and if I go to talk to anyone in authority in my current pissed-off state, I am likely to say something that I will regret later. (Besides, my boss has had her door shut most of the day.)

First off, 95% of all managers in 99% of American businesses (based on the fact that I have witnessed it in 110% of the businesses with which I have been associated), do not manage: they administer. They do budgets and respond to inquiries from above, but they do not actually set genuine goals, look for future opportunities or obstacles, or pay any attention to the actual conditions in which their employees work. (The 5% who do in the 1% of companies that have them are golden.)

You have to try #1, then fall back on #3.

Rather than directly going over the boss’s head, however, I have usually tried to find ways to let everyone know of the problem without blaming anyone for the dropped ball. For example, the client sends a letter asking why A is late or has failed, send a letter to boss, copied to higher boss, indicating your concern that the company may be facing a problem, outlining the bare facts of the problem (without resorting to pointing fingers) and expressing the urgency of a solution.

I have found that this gets the attention of the upper boss without getting the immediate boss into a dither about 15% of the time (which is 15% more than pleading with the boss achieves, although it is certainly frustrating the 85% of the time that it blows up). While I hate to play the game, the memo also provides CYA so that they may blame the failure on an Act of God instead of making you the target.

**tom, ** I think you’re absolutely correct; I was just hoping someone else saw an alternative that I hadn’t, from sheer frazzled-ness. In fact, the Big Boss and I had a very long and extremely frank discussion when he decided to transfer me to her team some months ago; I warned him this would happen, and reminded him that my predecessor was about the 6th person to quit shortly after being transferred to her team (and last week’s incident was the second identical one, of someone storming out in the middle of the day, never to return).

The Big Boss acknowledged the issues I raised and told me to keep him apprised of the situation, but I don’t trust him farther than I can throw him, especially given the current economic climate; I’m afraid that any dissent or kvetching may make me gallows fodder.

This is all even more frustrating because I actually like my immediate boss as a human being, but she is very sensitive, and tends to see even the most constructive criticism as a personal attack. She also does not deal well with stress; when she is overloaded past a certain point, she shuts down. She reached her current position because of her technical expertise, but she’s been making substantive errors lately, which scares me. Frankly, I’ve been catching more of my own errors on review than she has.

I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but I don’t want to go bonkers with unnecessary stress either, and I don’t want our office to lose its second-largest client because my boss can’t figure out how to triage.

<< She reached her current position because of her technical expertise >>

A major problem, but not an uncommon one. It’s a version of the Peter Principle, I suppose. Just because she was a great paralegal (or whatever) and had top-notch technical expertise doesn’t mean she’s automatically a good manager. Not without training in management skills, and it looks like she has none.

Not sure what you can do about it. In addition to the approach tomndebb suggests, you might also want to get your resume out to a few firms. Yes, it’s a tough market, but at least you’d be a jump ahead.

Some generic “helpful hints”:

  • Don’t put her on the defensive. One of the ways to avoid that is to talk about YOUSELF, not about her. EXAMPLE: “You haven’t given me enough information to do this assignment” is accusatory, and she’ll have to respond with “Oh, yes, I have!” or a similar denial. If you say, instead, “I feel that I don’t have enough information to do this job,” you’ve made a factual statement about your own feelings. She can’t reasonably deny that (“No, you don’t feel that way” isn’t much of a response.) Focusing on you and how you feel or what you need might help keep things on track, if she’s so sensitive.
    Similar EXAMPLE: “You’re micromanaging me” will be met with denial. Try something like, “I feel like I don’t have enough autonomy.”

  • Stick to the business issues, don’t let it be personal. Phrase things in a way that relate to the business, to the job, to the information flow, NOT to the personalities, the attitudes, the emotions.

  • Don’t be confrontational, don’t be whiny, and don’t let emotions show. Be as business-like as you can. You’re trying to get the tools to do your job. Focus on the future, not the past – you’re not trying to assign blame, you’re trying to get the tools to move forward.

Good luck!

Why are you working there? There must be some other place to go. Look around for another job, quietly, and if you find something promising, go to your Big Boss, tell him he’s moving your boss or he’s moving you or you’re quitting.

Do this calmly and rationally and point out that this woman is simply not getting the job done, and that 7 quittings by disgruntled people means HE has a serious problem on his hands and it is affecting his bottom line.

My suggestion: an extremely carefully worded memo to the Managing Partner, stressing the fact that you wish to remain loyal to and have a decent relationship with immediate boss, but that you’re extraordinarily concerned about problems with client company and their impact on your firm’s bottom line, and that discussions and requests for direction from immediate boss have not resulted in answers that enable you to proceed satisfactorily. “The following are my concerns…{numbered list}. I regret feeling the need to take this action, but my loyalty to the firm outweighs my personal loyalty to immediate boss, whom I count a friend and do not wish to hurt or harm, personally or professionally. I believe that concern with other cases in which she is involved have led her to not recognize the impact that this one could have on the firm. Therefore I’m requesting that either (1) you give explicit instructions on my list of concerns, (2) you give her a directive to address the list of concerns, or (3) I be given the authority to resolve the list of concerns on a one-shot basis.” Reword to fit the personalities involved, with emphasis on the importance to the business and your desire to maintain a good business relationship with immediate boss.

BTW, I’d appreciate an e-mail from you, Eva Luna; I’m aware of an issue affecting mutual friends where your expertise would be most valuable, and you don’t have e-mail enabled. If you’re willing, thanks.

Thanks, all, and please keep the ideas coming. I’m really looking for a peaceful resolution to all this, partly because I hate conflict in general, and partly because I really do want to make my career with this firm. The firm at large is IM not so HO the best in the field, and I really respect the work we do in general. I really don’t want to look for another job; even if I could find one given the current state of the market (and believe me, if nobody’s hiring right now, then definitely nobody is hiring foreigners who will require thousands of dollars in legal work to be legally employable), almost anything else would be a step down.

It’s unfortunate, however, that the attorneys at my boss’ level have essentially no managerial skills. They (including my boss) were hired by the previous Managing Partner (now semi-retired), who was a much more hands-on manager and was more inclined to provide the kind of daily guidance that such relatively junior staff would need. To give you some perspective, the oldest among them is my age (34) and the most senior attorney other than the Managing Partner, with 9 years of legal experience. None of the team leaders had been practicing law for more than 2-3 years before being made a Team Leader. So really, they’re not a very seasoned bunch to be handling the kinds of issues they are called upon to handle.

I’m hoping that things will be shaken up soon, though, and for the better; one of the Team Leaders is leaving next month (long story, not job-related), and she’s being replaced by a much more senior guy with 20+ years of experience in immigration law/diplomatic service. I haven’t met him, but I’m hoping he will have some new ideas and some much-needed guidance for all of us.

(Oh, and **Polycarp, ** check your e-mail. I’m generally happy to answer questions, but I like to have control over who has my contact info.)


The Next Installment…(and my apologies for length, which I fear is becoming rather Dickensian):

OK, I’m really about to lose it now. My boss’ major saving grace has always been always her subject matter knowledge, and her attention to detail in that regard. Until now, anyway.

A couple of months ago, we filed a NAFTA case for a client. The particular job classification has been a quite problematic one with Homeland Security (the Agency Formerly Known as INS), as they are tightening up on enforcement of adjudications criteria and therefore kicking back all sorts of cases which would have sailed through with no problem a year ago.

This particular case was filed based on the same facts for the 4th consecutive annual extension, and we got a request for further evidence, basically asking us to re-prove every single element of the case in exhaustive detail. As this would have required our hapless Canadian to go back and get detailed affidavits from several companies which no longer exist, my boss decided to see if he was eligible for any alternative visa classifications. She talked with the client, reviewed the file, and them came back and told me he was eligible for a different visa category and I should go back and re-draft everything ASAP for her review.

The alternative visa category requires the U.S. company to have a legal relationship with a Canadian company; to qualify, the U.S. company must be majority owner, subsidiary, affiliate, or 50/50 joint venture partner with veto authority over the Canadian company. So silly me, I assume my boss has examined the relevant data and determined that the corporate relationship qualifies. I then spent the whole morning redrafting everything, and since I was unable to talk to my boss (who was in meetings, etc. all morning), figuring I can fill in the blank later.

Just now I went back to ask her if she knew what the relationship is, and well, she doesn’t and asks me to check online. There are no SEC filings, nothing on the company’s website…in fact, the company’s web site lists several Americas offices, but no Canadian locations at all. In fact, it’s looking quite like there is no way in Hell our hapless Canadian will qualify, and it’s not even his fault. So I’ve just thrown the entire morning down the toilet once again, not to mention we now have to go back and ask the client about something we should have asked them before telling them that their employee would be eligible for the damn useless visa that I’ve already drafted. And it’s not like I don’t have a zillion other projects to work on, but was told this one was top priority…

I am trying desperately to refrain from marching into my boss’ office and blowing my stack. Any more inspirations from y’all?

I worked with lawyers as a paralegal for some years and I recognize the signs of burnout. Responsibility without authority (or without enough authority), the fact that you care about your clients’ concerns but can’t really do anything about them, and the fact that you’re overworked yet wasting time on something that’s pointless.

It sounds like you are doing your best and doing a good job (if you hadn’t checked on that issue maybe your boss would also have wasted time, or even filed something that would have really muddied the waters. (Probably obvious, I don’t know much about immigration law, but I do know about paperwork and govt. agencies.)

You did not waste your morning. You followed your boss’s instructions.

Now what comes to my mind is, can this company very quickly forge some kind of on-paper agreement with some Canadian entity? But of course that’s the kind of solution that has to be made by a lawyer.

Don’t go into your boss’s office and blow your stack. Go on to one of the zillion other projects (preferably one with a good chance of a happy outcome). And Thank God It’s Friday.

PS–I see in the earlier thread that some people suggested polishing up your resume. Well, based solely on my experience which is half-vast, you’re going to run into this same thing or variations thereof in any law office in America. Suck it up, keep your head down and do your job to the best of your ability.

Unfortunately, that won’t work; the guy would have had to work for the Canadian entity for 1 year out of the past 3, a difficult thing if the entity didn’t exist yet. I know my stuff in the straightforward situations; the issue here was that years ago there was a Canadian entity, but it was sold off in a series of mergers and acquisitions, and I’ve never been trained in corporate law, nor did I know exactly which parts of the corporate octopus had been sold off and which had been kept. The point was that my boss either should have been paying enough attention to ask the question, or at least to ask me to ask the question.

She didn’t, probably because she is too burned out herself; my philosophy is that past a certain point in the day, there is no purpose in me spending more time at work, because I’m mentally fatigued and therefore producing crap. My boss believes in staying there until the job is done, no matter what state she’s in. That’s why I’m so frustrated about the overtime; not only would it have been unnecessary if she had a fucking clue when reviewing this case initially, but the time I spent on it detracted from my ability to use the time, energy, and mental focus on other things that needed it.

Anyway, my gut is rebelling on me, so I decded to stay home tonight and vegetate. Thanks for the moral support, though.

Seriously, Eva, is this job worth your health and the stress it is causing you? Will you look back on your deathbed and regret all the years you wasted running on this treadmill? You say you want to stay at this job, but it sounds like it is going to burn you out (and you’re well on your way already). Is there no other job you can do similar to this one without the incredibly frustrations and stress?

Well, I should clarify that the rebellious gut was apparently the result of an argument my stomach had with my lunch, not work stress per se. Although my asthma has been acting up more frequently since I switched to this team.

The frustrating part is that I really enjoy my work, when I’m given the proper tools to get it done, and I’m damn good at it. I’m trying to figure out how to get switched onto another team in the office. Preferably before I go postal.


4+ months, three cases of asthmatic bronchitis, numerous failed attempts at two-way communication and process improvement, and several large steps toward going postal since my initial post in this thread, and I’m really about to lose it.

Today’s precipitating event? Being chewed out for failing to copy my boss on every e-mail and apprise her of every conversation I have had with a particular client, who (unbeknownst to me) is to be treated like a VIP even though he isn’t even at a middle manager level.

Now I have no problem copying my boss on every e-mail, if that’s what she wants, but guess where the information was that I was supposed to do so? Hidden in a document in her network directory that I don’t even access normally. The document? A spreadsheet of company employees for the team’s largest client, along with the date the case was initiated and the date we requested and/or received case initiation questionnaires.

How was I supposed to know that I was to copy my boss on everything in these cases? They are highlighted, some in red and some in blue, on a sheet that isn’t even the front sheet in the spreadsheet (without mentioning it to me, she pulled out certain cases that we’d already drafted onto a separate worksheet in the same Excel file). I guess I’m supposed to be psychic and know what the color-coding meant, even though it’s not indicated anywhere. Aaaargh!

On the bright side, the person who’s been on maternity leave since May is supposed to be back on Monday. I’m really crossing my fingers that she isn’t just going to stay for a week to make sure her maternity leave is paid for, and then give notice. Because Lord knows I’ve foreseen that and tried to nudge my boss to come up with a Plan B, because if they tell me I have to do that HR stuff for the rest of my career here, I’m looking for another job. Anyone need an immigration paralegal?

{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{{Eva Luna}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}}

Sorry it’s just a hug and not useful advice.
It really does sound like you are severely wasted in this job.
What featherlou said.
I mean, SHIT, you’re obviously bright, know your stuff, and work hard, there must be people out there who would kill to have you on the team. Are you actively looking for another job?

There’s the best solution yet. Eva Luna, you’re a pearl in a swine trough.

Thanks, guys. I have given it some serious thought. I’m giving it until Christmas, and until I take a real vacation and clear my head. Then, if things haven’t improved significantly, I’m going to have another serious conversation with the managing partner. If he bullshits me again, or if he makes me promises that once again fail to materialize, that’s when I’ll start looking. I really wanted to make my career here, but not at the cost of my health and my sanity. (And there are other issues, of course, that I haven’t mentioned here.) I really think the managing partner thinks everyone is replaceable; he has shown it over and over again. I suppose in a certain sense this is true, but at what cost?

On the bright side, one of my teammates knows the hiring manager at the best large firm in town with an immigration practice, and has offered to hook me up. (She’d still be there herself if it weren’t for some personal baggage; she was there for 13 years.) And a number of other colleagues who have moved on are also rather well-situated; my firm has a great rep, perhaps the best in the business, so we are all quite marketable. However, it’s not an easy place for a new mom to have a decent work/life balance, and when you hire mostly women from 25-35, you will inevitably end up with some new moms. When they can’t deal with the stress and inflexibility, they tend to leave, but leave for other good places (or for clients, or sometimes to open their own firms). And it’s a small legal niche, so everyone in the business knows why people leave my firm; it’s not like anyone looks down on people who decide they can’t take it anymore (although the stress is far worse at the attorney level than at the paralegal level).

Plus my career so far has been a lesson in “what goes around, comes around”; when I worked for the Feds, I didn’t have to be nice to everyone, but I was. So when I was hunting in the private sector and did a mass mailing, pretty much everyone at least called me back, and I had a bunch of interviews, even without any directly related experience. (I used to be a court interpreter.) So I have a pretty good feel for the market, and for who is and isn’t sleazy.