In a world where billable hours are king and impossible deadlines mean that lawyers perform daily miracles, associates often find themselves starved for meaningful feedback on their work.
Many float through their career, oblivious to their progress; their egos nourished only with a pat-on-the-back review and, around the holidays, a half smile indistinguishable from a smirk. Others find sustenance in the hope that a consistent flow of work means they’re doing well.
While some associates are fortunate enough to receive a comprehensive review, true candour sometimes only comes when it’s too late. You can’t get more candid than, “It’s just not working out — I’d be happy to provide a (lukewarm) reference, though.” Well, in an attempt to prevent the review that comes too late, I’ve spoken with several partners and asked them what their biggest gripes are when it comes to working with associates.
1. Work it out
Whoever said, “There is no such thing as a stupid question” was either a kindergarten teacher or just stupid. As a junior associate, the only currency you’ve got at your firm is the confidence you’ve managed to feign since starting there. So don’t waste it all away on a poorly thought-out inquiry. Certainly, questions are a part of the learning process and can be great buffer between you and a malpractice insurance claim, but there are still some unspoken rules about asking questions.
The basic consensus among partners is: do not ask a question you can figure out for yourself. Always take a crack at the problem first. More than anything, partners want to see that you’ve put some thought into it. If that proves fruitless, go ask your peers — some of them may actually be smarter or more seasoned than yourself. If you are all equally baffled, go up a step and ask that senior, but still approachable, associate. If this still does not work, at least you’ve satisfied yourself that the question is likely not a stupid one.
This should give you the confidence to make the call or the visit — that’s right, visit. Many associates rationalize that an e-mail is less bothersome and duck out of real-time interactions with partners (eventually you’ll have to look smart on the spot). But according to several partners, the greater irritant is being faced with a BlackBerry full of questions via e-mail. You’ve just created more work for them.
When you do finally work up the courage to make the call or visit, a few pointers: try to think through the file; anticipate any additional questions you might have to minimize visits/calls; and write everything down. You may still ask a stupid question, and, more often than not, you won’t get an entirely helpful answer. But if you show that you’ve given it some thought before coming to them, chances are you’ll be dubbed “green,” not brainless, and get respect for your efforts.
2. Own it
I would not be so thick as to devote an entire paragraph to the point that partners want associates to work harder. So please don’t misconstrue this as a nudge to work harder in sheep’s clothing. What I’m referring to is the failure of associates to take ownership of their files. And while a natural side effect of following this advice will sometimes entail extra time at the office, it really goes beyond that. In the most concrete terms, partners don’t get excited over associates who fail to take the initiative — or, conversely, associates who do the most minimal version of what’s asked of them.
Some basic algebra might be helpful. If you’re asked to do X, but the natural conclusion of X is that Y and Z will need similar revisions, don’t just stop at X. If you play dumb, then you’ll be thought of as . . . well . . . dumb instead of lazy, so I’m not sure that’s any better. No one’s telling you to hole up in your office with hours of self-prescribed memos. Just try to anticipate what else needs to get done or, at the very least, don’t turn a blind eye to what the obvious next steps will be.
And offer to do it before you’re asked. This isn't what you want to hear, but it's apparently one of the fault lines between those who succeed and those who fall through the cracks.
3. Small but dangerous
If you thought that speling mistakes were just a minor anoyance, and not really a testament to your inteligence, then, tell me, does this sentence make me look smart?
The culprits are of two varieties. There are those who thought that poor spelling was just a side effect of their analytical genius and assumed they could coast by with the assistance of a tight-lipped assistant who took pity on them. And there are others who didn’t take the elective typing course in high school and chose to get by instead on two-digit word processing.
Whether you are a bad speller or typist, the consensus among partners is that small typos leave a BIG impression. Everyone knows that attention to detail is key to any practice. Typos are, therefore, one of the easiest ways to hand away your credibility. According to several partners, the real frustration is that they see no real excuse for these errors. With the three safeguards of spell check, your own eyes, and a competent assistant, partners just don’t have much patience.
A few points: sit down with your assistant and explain that your expectation is that they will act as a second set of eyes and be just as vigilant as you with respect to typos; read your work on paper and not only on the monitor; mind your homonyms; and learn to be concise, as the more words you excise, the less room you’ll leave for typos. And finally, if there are any unintended typos in this column, then please address your comments to the editor.
4. The ticking time bomb
As associates, you may feel the grind, but real accountability to your clients usually only comes with partnership. So when you don’t meet a deadline, partners will feel that you’ve hung them out to dry with a client, and, understandably, this will tick them off. Of course, we can’t always meet deadlines because we don’t all have a talented elf, fairy godmother, or an extra wish from a benevolent genie.
But here are a few things partners want you to do: clarify when deliverables to clients have been promised, don’t procrastinate, give updates of your progress on longer timelines (especially if you hit a stumbling block along the way), and if you anticipate having trouble with a deadline give the partner lots of notice. It’s all about managing expectations, so when you wait until the last minute to ask questions or get some wiggle room, you deprive the partner of being able to manage a client’s expectations.
Certainly, this is not to encourage always asking for leeway because we all know that grace periods are scarce. Just remember, we are all slaves to time — partners and associates alike. If a partner is handing something off to you, chances are they’re also struggling to meet a deadline and are counting on you to save their neck. It’s a slightly more subtle opportunity to be a hero, but my advice is: take it where you can get it.
5. Don’t get stuck in the past
Precedents are a tricky one. As new associates, we were relieved to make their acquaintance. Filling in information in the right spots was just a more sophisticated version of Mad Libs. But then, just as quickly as the solution was offered, it was yanked away with the instruction that we were not to rely on them.
Lawyers are the worst kind of tease. But truthfully, the advice has been split. Some maintain that precedents are no good — although this view tends to be accompanied by a certain degree of nostalgia for simpler times. Others believe that as certain areas of law become more complex and specialized, precedents are not only helpful but necessary to carry on a responsible practice. Like hip hop, it’s a classic case of old skool versus new. But whichever camp you come from, there is still common ground in that partners hate to see blatant shortcuts that demonstrate no original thought.
In fact, both schools of thought share the view that, in many cases, a first draft is best attempted before you even glance at a precedent. This will force you to articulate your thoughts, be mindful of your audience, and what the document needs to accomplish. Only then, should you refer to a precedent for form and any specialized or appropriate boilerplate language that, let’s be honest, you could never craft on your own.
Beginning the other way will often result in the inclusion of entirely inappropriate or unnecessary language and the production of an unthoughtful document that doesn’t accomplish its goal. You should be able to understand what each provision is trying to achieve and defend its inclusion. Otherwise, you’ll be neither old or new school, you’ll just get schooled.
Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with Rainmaker Group. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org