There is plenty of talk about power and politics in a presidential election year, and it will only grow more heated as Nov. 6 gets closer. Whether you lean left or right – and even if you stand up straight in the center — you navigate a political landscape every time you go to work.
The political arena
Want to climb to the top of the paralegal ladder? Learn how to master office politics
The term “office politics” generally raises hackles, and for good reason: We associate these dangerous waters with the worst parts of interpersonal dynamics, from backstabbing to climbing over coworkers on your way to the top.
Seasoned paralegals asked to talk about office politics, though, said they view them more simply — as the nature of human relationships.
“Most people, when they hear the term ‘office politics,’ I think they do view it in a negative way. It probably means gossip, who has the power in the office, if I want something accomplished, who do I go to, to make that happen?” said Camille Stell, director of client services for Lawyers Mutual and a former Meredith College paralegal instructor. “But … what we’re really talking about is how to navigate your office culture.”
Paralegals acknowledged that office politics often center on drama, conflict, competition for scarce resources, and the advantages of knowing who really holds the power. But, they said, a savvy paralegal can take steps to manage these relationships wisely. Read on for their advice.
Understand the power grid
Your best tactic here can be summed up as “Watch, listen and learn.” This is a smart strategy when you’re new, when you’ve held your position for a while but feel like you can’t access the inner circle, or when staff shakeups have totally rearranged staff dynamics.
Stephanie Elliott is a paralegal at Gray, Layton, Kersh, Solomon, Furr & Smith in Gastonia, N.C., president of the North Carolina Paralegal Association and an instructor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. She counsels her students to observe first.
“Just watch how people interact and see who groups up, and that tells you a lot about how things get played out in the office — who is the decision maker and who are the people that carry things out,” she said. “If you just watch what goes on and how people respond to each other, you have a better idea of who the power players are.”
Stell notes that a power structure often exists outside the organization chart. Some attorneys flaunt a senior title, but are taken less seriously by other firm members, while someone who lacks formal status may actually hold more sway. “He’s not a managing partner, he doesn’t head up a practice group, but nobody does anything here without getting him on board,” she said.
Understanding who’s who matters when it comes to deciding which person to approach with your great ideas, complaints and requests for help. If you need resources or you’re angling for a project, you may not get anywhere if you’re talking to someone who has no influence with the people who can make things happen.
“Part of operating well in an office culture is figuring out where you go for specific things,” Stell said.
Know it when you see it
Some office politics are obvious, but more often, they take the form of day-to-day maneuverings and the dynamics that arise when any group struggles to reach consensus among differing opinions. In a law firm, Elliott said, such decisions might concern which direction the firm is headed, whether attorneys will take a specific case, or who gets invited along when a partner leaves for a new position and takes staff members with him. If a branch is handling a case handed down by corporate honchos, they may take an interest in how things are being handled, which adds another layer of interaction.
Elliott described one situation where associates brought in a large case, which led to jostling about who would handle certain duties and what partners’ role would be. Such conversations can easily lead to distribution of profits. For a paralegal, whose workload, reputation and even compensation are tied to the work of a supervising attorney, these matters can get personal.
“All this boils down to relationships and how you relate to the people within your firm,” Elliott said.
Paralegals in the middle
“If you get more than a dozen people in your office, you’re going to have personality conflict, and that’s perceived as office politics,” said Mary Powell, an office manager at Faison Law Group in Durham.
The knack of negotiating those personalities, without creating more conflict, distinguishes those who fare well in professional firms. For paralegals, the situation is especially challenging because they are often caught in the middle, between attorneys or between attorneys and support staff.
At Powell’s firm, paralegals are assigned to cases, not to attorneys, which means they may find themselves with competing demands.
“What happens is the paralegal ends up at three o’clock in the afternoon with three deadlines, each taking three hours for three different attorneys,” Powell said. At that point, the paralegal has to ask the attorneys to prioritize the work, communicating a desire to get the job done while seeking a solution to an impossible task.
“You always have somebody to go to, so don’t hesitate to go,” Powell said. “Don’t try to work in a vacuum.”
Stell and Elliott agreed that paralegals often feel pulled in different directions by people with various levels of authority. Keeping everyone happy is a tall order, but a critical career skill.
“The key to being really successful in navigating office politics is to understand what the relationships are and how they affect you,” Elliott said. “There are layers of relationships. You have the people you work for and you should be loyal to — your partner or your associates — but you also need to be loyal to the people that are like you, the paralegals.”
In some offices, paralegals are outnumbered by lawyers and staff. That adds to the challenging fact that paralegals occupy a gray area, performing complex work that requires legal expertise, but not quite attorneys, either, Stell said. Such issues of hierarchy and power can trigger resentments.
Stell’s advice? Focus on the common goal of getting clients’ work done in the best way possible. Being a good listener is another great skill when you need to manage others’ expectations, she said: “We have to make sure our words aren’t condescending to other staff people, but that we’re not trying to replace the attorneys, so you’re constantly in this place of trying to be a peacemaker, almost.”
Steer clear of gossip and other pitfalls
Some of the best professional advice Elliott ever has received came from the first managing partner she worked for: When the office drama bubbles up, put your head down and get your work done.
“That has served me very well,” Elliott said. “You don’t ignore it, exactly, because you need to know what going on — it may affect you. But if you’re still working and still producing, there’s not going to be any cause for concern.”
Good intentions aside, getting caught up in office gossip is an easy mistake. Sharing confidential matters can give someone a way to feel important. A partner’s secretary, for example, may be privy to a great deal of information that she passes along to others to increase her own standing.
But participating in those conversations can lead to not only hurt feelings, but professional damage, Stell warned: “It could also come back to you. There could be consequences to you for spreading the gossip, and that’s a trap that many people fall into.”
Even if you steer clear of gossip, protect yourself by knowing who doesn’t. “You have to learn who it is that is going to take anything you say and go running through the gossip gauntlet,” Powell said.
Being positive is one of the best ways to insulate yourself against others’ negativity, Stell recommended. That means being mindful about the reputation you develop. To that end, she said, make sure that when you make yourself heard, it’s through positive suggestions and a can-do attitude. Being known as the office complainer is a sure way to find that your managers have deaf ears when it comes to your point of view.
“If you’re known as the person who doesn’t rock the boat, when you do have a complaint, I think it’ll be taken more seriously,” Stell said.
Use relationships to your advantage
Just knowing your firm’s power relationships may not be enough. According to Stell, if you want something, you still have to ask for it.
“We’re in a time where resources are going to be limited and everybody is trying to get what they can for their department or for their team,” she said. “Maybe there’s a plum assignment, and it’s ‘How do I get those plum assignments? It seems like everybody around me has something that I don’t seem to have.’”
When that happens, she said it’s usually because someone is too passive, thinking they can sit back and wait for their hard-earned rewards to arrive. But asking for what you want is only half the battle. Smart use of office politics is making sure you ask the right person, someone who can help you or influence the people who can.
“It’s all about knowing and being able to maneuver through who the right people are,” she said. “That takes a little bit of time, experience and some savvy.”
Powell advised paralegals to take advantage of office relationships by asking for help.
“I truly think if you want to move up the ranks, you tell those that are your supervisors what your goals are and get them to help you set goals,” Powell said. “You can go up the chain in one of two ways: You can knock people out of the way getting up there, or you can embrace those who can help you.”
Whether your firm is a jungle of office politics or you enjoy a relatively cooperative environment, Stell said every paralegal benefits by being aware of interpersonal dynamics.
“Some people think, ‘I can just come in at eight and leave at five and I just don’t have to worry about what goes on around me,’” she said. “I think that’s naïve. I think we’re impacted by office politics and we can have an impact on office politics and we should choose to make it positive.”
Elliott agreed that awareness, paired with caution, is the best strategy.
“I think as a responsible employee, it’s your job to know who the power players are and how people relate to each other,” Elliott said. “But that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to be involved in it. You just need to understand what the power structure is and how you fit into that.”