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Advice from seasoned practitioners plays a large role in the development of junior lawyers. In fact, the relationship between a senior and junior lawyer - that of the teacher and the student - forms the backbone of our profession.
This article does not aim to take the place of that relationship. Additionally, it will not detail the ins and outs of your first few years of practice as a young lawyer. There are many other fine articles that provide excellent practice-specific pointers. Instead, this article aims to provide a few basic tips that will help you to make a positive impression early in your career regardless of your practice. Use them as you see fit and for best results, adapt them to your corporate culture and specific practice. Use them well and you will develop a strong ability to issue-spot like a seasoned practitioner. What do you do with those issues once you've spotted them? The last tip will answer that question.
Sweat the small stuff
This should, first and foremost, be the credo of every junior lawyer. For starters, working through the details is a great learning process. Only through complete immersion can you hope to understand the big picture. More importantly, most senior lawyers expect junior lawyers to chase down the minutiae. Having an answer ready for a detail-oriented question will create a very strong first impression and a feeling of confidence in your abilities. So, sweat the small stuff. But do so with caution as the next tip advises.
Sweat cautiously and proportionately
There's a fine line between sweating the small stuff and losing the forest for the trees. In fact, an incomplete or non-existent perception of the big picture will alter your understanding of the details and create a counter-productive learning experience. Also, sweat the small stuff proportionately in relation to the issue or assignment. In other words, don't boil the ocean to draft a one-page letter. That type of behavior displays bad judgment and will damage your reputation.
Contemplate follow-up questions
This piece of advice goes almost hand in hand with sweating the small stuff. Think each of your issues through and anticipate follow-ups from the client and senior lawyers. Understanding the natural follow-up to an issue is the hallmark of a well-prepared junior lawyer and well-prepared junior lawyers often transform into successful junior lawyers. Proportionality is important here too.
Listen and reflect
We all know that listening is an important skill. But do we all practice reflective listening? Reflective listening is the art of repeating what you are hearing to the speaker. It can drastically cut down on misunderstandings or miscommunications and it plainly shows the other person that you are in fact listening. Reflective listening can be particularly important when a person is communicating a question or assignment to you. And don't be bashful - most speakers will appreciate the exchange!
Take advantage of a blank slate
As a young lawyer, it is critical to remember that you are working with most people for the first time. Your colleagues and clients are virtually a blank slate when it comes to your work ethic and reputation. Deadlines, accuracy, and attention to detail are critical. People will remember your performance. Work hard and do well and you will establish a reputation for quality work. Do a sloppy job and your reputation will suffer even if your reputation for quality work happened to precede you. Work hard to mold your reputation and peoples' expectations and you will enjoy a long successful career as a lawyer.
Never assume anything
Assume without saying and everyone loses or so the G-rated version of the old saying goes. Assumptions create a number of problems for young lawyers. Young lawyers are not often equipped with enough experience to make the proper assumptions. Additionally, those who you are working with may not want you to assume anything. If you make an assumption, it may completely alter the result or your analysis. This tip applies across the board from your work product to professional relationships. Assumptions about colleagues or clients can be the most disastrous. So, avoid them at all costs. And if you simply must assume, then follow the next piece of advice.
If you absolutely must assume, explain
It may sometimes be necessary to make an assumption or a series of assumptions. If you find yourself in this situation, explain the assumptions that you are making. This will help the other person or party to better understand your result or analysis. It will also clear up any ambiguities by defining the scope of your work. It also lets others know that your analysis contains layers that can be peeled back or added for a different result. And here's a bit of irony - if you fail to explain your assumptions, someone else may assume you didn't assume anything and you'll find yourself in a downward spiral headed toward miscommunication that no amount of reflective listening or follow-up questioning can resolve.
If you apply the foregoing tips to your daily routines, you'll find it easy to discover relevant issues. And when you do discover those issues, here's one more piece of advice.
Escalate issues you find - Do it early and do it often
The practice of law is a practice in decision-making that takes years to perfect. Young lawyers often feel uncomfortable making judgment calls alone. The following advice came from a colleague of mine in the context of a due diligence assignment. Do your work and sort out the details noting any issues you discover. Bring those issues, and perhaps a suggested solution, to your senior colleagues for their perspective at an appropriate time. They will welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues with you. Let it linger and a minor issue may become a huge problem. The worst case scenario can happen when a young lawyer fails to raise an issue that later surfaces without the lawyer's involvement. None of us want to answer a colleague or client who is asking whether we knew about the issue and if so, why we failed to act. If you do happen to find yourself answering that question, at least your answer won't be that you weren't sweating the small stuff because you assumed without saying that someone else was.
About the Author
Scott H. Husbands (J.D., Gonzaga University; B.A., Penn State University) is the 2008-2009 Vice Chair for the Corporate Counsel Committee of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division. Scott works as an associate in the Business Group of Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle, Washington. He focuses his practice in the areas of corporate governance and transactions, including mergers and acquisitions, private equity transactions, SEC compliance, and venture capital financings.