You might be harboring contradictory sentiments about how a more junior attorney should interact with the most experienced or influential partners. One the one hand, your internal dialogue might criticize senior associates who you view as “kiss ups” or “ass kissers.” But at the same time you know that you need a mentor.
So how do you cultivate a mentor in a way that doesn’t make you feel queasy? The short answer is that it’s very typical to feel awkward when you consciously try to impress someone more senior. In my experience coaching lawyers, I’ve seen that most attorneys are most comfortable networking with their peers. For example, associates hang out with associates and stay in touch with their college and law school classmates. These are examples of networking sideways or laterally.
One of the most successful lawyers I know had this said about him: “His best skill is making a good impression.” In a workplace setting such as a law firm, people rarely think about going out of their way to make a good impression on the newest secretary or staff person. To advance your career, there are some people who are more important to impress than others. So that statement is a quintessential compliment for someone who has mastered the art of networking up. Up, in this context, broadly refers to the organizational chart.
There are ways to network up and minimize the potential fallout that comes from being seen as a “kiss up.” One is to give appropriate credit to others. People who hog all the credit for themselves tend to lose support among their peers. It’s the wrong thing to do, and can also be damaging to their standing within the office.
But please don’t make the opposite mistake of not taking enough credit. This is often a particular problem for people who have socialized to fit in, be a team player, or who have been taught that they should not stand out. In our society this attitude is more prevalent among women than men.
It’s critical to realize that advancing professionally requires making a good impression on certain individuals. That’s how junior associates get better assignments; how senior associates become junior partners; how lawyers at all levels of seniority become rainmakers. You can and should do it ethically.
But do it—learn to excel at networking up.