Dealing with Important People -- or those who fancy themselves more important than you -- is yet another important skill set not taught in law school.
If you haven't figured this out by now, let me be the first to tell you: The entire Big Firm system is built on layers of importance. You should try to act slightly more important than you actually are, but trying too hard to seem too important can also get you busted -- and booted.
Given the delicate balance of this game, I thought some guidance would be useful.
TOO BUSY TO BE BOTHERED
Truly important people are in high demand. Everyone wants just a few seconds of their time. They are bombarded by client calls, media requests, paparazzi and invitations to the Grammys. They are in such demand that they must have an assistant filter all requests for their time.
Big Law Big Wigs have administrative assistants who filter the requests by, well, level of importance. If you try to pick up the phone and give one of them a ring, your call will be intercepted by a specially trained Phone Filterer:
"Hello, Big Wig Partner's Office. Who's calling?"
Now, if you want to break through the clutter and seem important, you better have a good answer here. If you get too cocky and assume that your first name alone will ring a bell and prompt you through to the second layer of filtration, you could be doomed. Unless you have an established repartee with the Phone Filterer such that she will recognize that you are also a Big Wig, I suggest one of the following approaches:
• "Hi, this is Mid-Level Cog in the Seattle office returning his call."
• "Yes, this is Mid-Level Cog calling on behalf of Bigger Wigged Partner."
• "This is his wife."
Of course, these are in order of effectiveness, but only if they are true. You cannot gain access by lying, or you are toast. He may work a lot of hours, but he (probably) knows the difference between his wife's voice and yours. You need to offer something in your first sentence that identifies you as someone having useful information for Big Wig.
Making it to voice mail -- the second layer of filtration for phone calls -- is no victory. You will be the 57th call of the day in Big Wig's overflowing voice mail box, which likely will be checked not by Big Wig, but by the Phone Filterer who let you into the voice mail box to begin with. You probably won't even be graced with Mr. Big Wig's own voice on the message. Important people are also too busy to take two minutes to record a greeting. This can get confusing if, for example, you are calling Big Wig, who is a grumpy, old male, and his voice mail greeting is the voice of a young, perky female (the aforementioned Phone Filterer):
"Hi! You have reached the voice mail of Mr. Big Wig. He is not available to take your call, but please leave a short message with your name, status level, telephone number and the reason your call deserves his valuable attention, and he will consider calling you back. Thank you!"
Another method Important People use to save their valuable time is to have their Phone Filterer return calls for them as well. This gets really confusing. Your phone rings and you answer it yourself -- because you are not important enough to have a Phone Filterer -- and Mr. Big Wig's Phone Filterer checks to make sure you are available to talk. "Cog No. 432? I have Mr. Big Wig on the line. Are you available to speak with him now?"
Being too important to make your own phone calls is beyond my comprehension unless you are a head of state. Doesn't it take just as much time to sit and wait on the line for your Phone Filterer to check to see if the person you called can talk as it would to punch the buttons yourself?
Yes -- but that is not the point. This is the point: Big Wig is avoiding being turned away by someone less important. By the way -- if an Important Person calls you via their Phone Filterer, you are always available to speak, unless you are currently speaking with someone more important.
But honestly, few people are too important to return calls. If you are using a Phone Filter, not returning calls or not bothering to check your voice mail, you'd better be pretty certain you are as important as you think you are.
MEETING ETIQUETTE FOR IMPORTANT PEOPLE
Maybe the better way to communicate with Important People is to have a good, old-fashioned, scheduled face-to-face meeting. That sounds reasonable. If you are important enough to get such valuable face time, surely this will finally get you the opportunity you need to communicate your point.
Not so fast. Meetings with Important People, or those trying to appear important, are painful. First, they will schedule the meeting without checking anyone else's availability. They assume you less important people have nothing else to do or will re-arrange your schedules to take advantage of this rare opportunity.
Second, Important People must always be the last to arrive. Important People cannot wait on less important people, so they purposely show up to all meetings at least 5 minutes late -- even though everyone else in the room is billing time for this wait. Their arrival is usually one of a rushed flurry -- they fling the door open, walk briskly to the head of the table, throw down their briefcase, ruffle some paper and then launch into a hurried greeting:
"I assume everyone's here. I just got off a call with Donald Trump and may need to step out in a few minutes to take a call from the President, so let's get started. Where is my coffee?"
Important People must let you know that there are more important people than you vying for their time, and you'd better use your few minutes effectively. They want to show you how busy and important they are, and some feel the need to name-drop -- just in case you were confused about where you fell in the ranks.
My favorite part about meeting with Important People is when there is more than one, and they have to battle it out with an Importance-Off. They both try to arrive last, but only one can win that tactic. Next, when Important Person No. 1 is speaking, Important Person No. 2 will act too important to pay attention and will instead check their Blackberry for more important e-mails. Then, out of nowhere, Important Person No. 2 will make a move, and interrupt Important Person No. 1:
"Yeah, Important Person No. 1, I have heard this before. Don't you think it is time we change strategies?"
Ouch. Bold move. Important Person No. 1 can only top that move with the true sign of importance -- a Summons. Important Person No. 1 will need to summon a less important person to the meeting to show she has the power to do so:
"Important Person No. 2, I know you aren't fully on board, but let me get you the market research, and you will see. Cog, please call my assistant in Dubai and my other assistant in Geneva -- no, no, don't worry about the time difference, they're always on call -- and have them e-mail me the market analyses."
A triple summons with geographical power play -- genius! Watch and learn, wanna-be Important People. Watch and learn.
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