Our roles today require us to connect, interact, and navigate working relationships in more dynamic ways. Beyond outstanding legal knowledge and ability we need to keep developing the leadership, communication and people skills that will enable us to excel. There is no single successful answer to managing up and down, not least because the context in which we each operate varies, but we can improve how we manage and how we are managed by focusing on some key skills. Valuable management research and insight is readily available that can be applied to the legal profession, and this article explores four themes as follows:

  1. how to handle challenging personalities;
  2. the critical role of communication;
  3. balancing availability and the need to recharge;
  4. what to avoid when leading others.

Handling challenging personalities

It is a good thing that everyone is not a mirror image of ourselves, but of course it means that we have to manage up or down, or work with, challenging personalities on occasion. In such situations consider the following:

The context

The situation, or wider context, can often be the cause, or a significant factor in driving the resulting challenging interaction. Is there a particular project, work issue or set of factors driving the current behaviour? Thinking about the context for the individual, their preferred approach and style can have a significant positive impact in reaching a more productive working relationship.

A discussion

Rarely do these situations improve miraculously on their own. Instead a conversation, appropriately raising the topic and areas of concern, can have the desired result. It can be helpful to arrange a time for the discussion, therefore ensuring there is the appropriate space. It will also likely help to use a framework to enable the conversation: context – explain the specifics of the situation; observations – describe the behaviours you saw, avoiding making judgments; impact – share the impact and result of the behaviour; next steps – discuss what can be done differently moving forward (‘COIN’).

For leaders you work with who are challenging, consider using a similar approach with greater focus on your perception, and also asking how you could better support or address issues moving forward. The intent is to raise the discussion and agree some next steps, which are joint actions and responsibilities.

Using others

We do not need to try and solve challenges on our own, including those that involve challenging working relationships. Using a trusted colleague to help consider how to approach a discussion, or steps to improve a situation, can be a valuable way to gain additional perspective and guidance to move a relationship forward. You may have a coach or a mentor, or discuss the situation confidentially with someone else.

The critical role of communication

We have heard it before; communication in teams and with those around you is critical. However, there is powerful research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that looked specifically at why some groups and teams are more successful and perform better that brings this communication theme into sharp focus. After analysing significant amounts of data and many different characteristics, they discovered that the highest performing groups and teams possessed three important elements, and the first was around communication: team members contributed to the group more equally, with no silent parties or dominant voices.

Whether as the leader or a group member, ensuring that those around you, in the right contexts, are contributing and participating in discussions is essential to build more productive working relationships. Additionally, what we say and do not say has impact. Our brains are wired to notice and react to threat far more than reward, so unintentional perceptions of exclusion can have a significant impact on people. If we are not actively including those around us in our communication then it is likely we are accidentally excluding.

"Are you being honest? If you were advising a colleague or friend, what would you be saying in response to what you heard? We can be over-optimistic about what we expect of ourselves, but are more realistic for others"

Our communication approach, regardless of role in a group, needs to include actively listening to others, ensuring we include and encourage participation.

Balancing availability and the need to recharge

We live in an era of constant communication and expectations about responsiveness. Ideas can develop quickly as people respond ‘in the moment’ and this can create pressure to always be ‘on’ and available. Of course, client expectations, perhaps across different time-zones, add to this pressure.

Ensuring that we balance the competing demands across our work and personal lives with time to re-energise, and therefore enabling continued high performance, is essential. As you reflect on the balance you have today, consider the following:

Where are your boundaries/limits?

The hours in any given day do not change, yet we often over-estimate what we can achieve, deliver and complete. It may be that the volume of activity we undertake, or the complexity, or the type of work exceeds what we can achieve. Being realistic and understanding our limits, recognising that a degree of stress and pressure can be positive, will ensure that we are productive.

How can you create space?

I was once told that lack of time is not the challenge, it is our ability to prioritise that is the issue. There is something in this; we all have to make decisions about the activities to focus upon and therefore have the ability to create space. We need to prioritise, choose the important and impactful activities, ensuring that we make time to recharge. Be more ruthless.

Are you being honest?

If you were advising a colleague or friend, what would you be saying in response to what you heard? Although we can be over-optimistic about what we expect of ourselves, we are more realistic for others so this can be a helpful question to ask.

What to avoid when leading others

The guidance, insights and advice around what to do as a leader is certainly helpful, however often knowing what to avoid is even more beneficial. Here are three key leadership pitfalls to avoid:


The messages – verbal and non-verbal, direct and indirect – that you deliver to those around you will guide and determine action of team members and colleagues. We significantly dilute the impact of these messages when we are inconsistent as we create uncertainty and confusion, resulting in undesired outcomes and most often inaction.

Silent expectations

We all have expectations and certainly of those around us we are leading and working with. Yet, very often we avoid communicating these expectations to people. Your expectations provide clarity, drive direction, and enable further discussion. Don’t be silent.


In 2018 we know that providing regular feedback to those around us and in teams is important to drive performance. We know that sharing the wider context of a case with those working on it will build engagement. However, we continue to rely on osmosis too often. S/he does not know what you are thinking, your thoughts on next steps, or your feedback on their work, contributions or document.

Pause – reflect – consider – enhance

Taking time on a regular basis to pause and reflect, consider your current approaches and how to enhance moving forward is critical. We all evolve and develop our skills, just at different paces. You can accelerate the growth of successful approaches and techniques with a small amount of regular, conscious effort.

Success in our roles today results from a delicate balance of constant performance in the practice of law, along with the ability to manage those around us effectively. Enhancing our skills to manage up and down, building emotional intelligence, will be the differentiator.

Jay Connolly, Global Chief Talent Officer at Dentons, was a guest speaker at Middle Temple’s Survive and Thrive seminar ‘People Management, how to manage up, down and sideways’.

Future-proof your skills: Middle Temple series helps all to survive & thrive

The Middle Temple ‘Survive and Thrive’ seminar series was created with the aim of providing something for barristers that other events do not, writes Felicity McMahon. Events focus on areas that we hope will be useful in both one’s professional and personal life; including wellbeing, managing the business of being a barrister, and communication skills. The programme is now well into its third year, having started in October 2015. Past events have included: ‘How to communicate effectively and sell yourself... without saying a word’, ‘The simple pursuit of happiness: how to achieve happiness and health goals’, ‘The entrepreneurial barrister and how to grow your business’ and the event at which Jay Connolly was one of our guest speakers: ‘People Management: how to manage up, down and sideways’. Event moderators have included the author Sebastian Faulks, broadcasters Anna Ford and Sir Trevor McDonald, and Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Patricia Gallan.

Events are free for Middle Temple members, £15 for others, with members of other Inns as well as clerks, partners etc all welcome. Drinks and networking take place both before and after each session. Survive & Thrive events are live-streamed on the Middle Temple website for members who are not able to attend in person, and are also live-Tweeted using the hashtag #survivethrivemt – where you can also join in the discussion. The next event, ‘How to future-proof your skills in the digital age’, is on 15 November 2018 and can be booked here or by calling the Treasury Office on 020 7427 4800. Keep an eye on the Middle Temple website for the 2019 Survive & Thrive programme.