Lost in Translation: Communication Tips for Summer Associates and New Lawyers
August 2012 | Survival Guide for Young Lawyers: Taking Charge of Your Career
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Lost in Translation: Communication Tips for Summer Associates and New Lawyers

By Benjamin Potts


Of the many challenges that pervade life as a summer associate at a large law firm, perhaps none is quite as nerve-wracking as that first “clarification meeting” with a partner or a senior associate.  You’ve received an assignment and reviewed it thoroughly, but to no avail.  You do not have the slightest idea what you are being asked to do (other than to devote the next several days of your life to answering a mysterious and potentially unanswerable question).  A blank document glares menacingly at you from the computer screen.  The search box in LEXIS is empty.  The task appears impossible.  It’s time to swallow hard and seek guidance from your assigning attorney.

Thankfully, asking for help is rarely looked down upon nowadays and many summer programs provide judgment-free mentoring resources for summer associates to ensure that they never feel too “stuck.”  Even so, a time comes in the course of working on many large assignments when the best strategy is to speak with the assigning attorney to receive direction or clarification on some part of the project.  Conversing with someone who is likely to be evaluating everything you say may be intimidating at first, but it can also be highly rewarding to “hold your own” in a dialog about complex legal issues. What’s more, having a productive conversation with an assigning attorney can leave a lasting positive impression that written work product cannot.  Thus, the skill of communicating effectively with the attorneys for whom you are working is critical to the ultimate goal: getting a job offer.

Good communication about an assignment does not have to be as difficult as the assignment itself.  Just follow the four steps below and you’ll be well on your way to impressing your assigning attorney before she reads a single word you’ve written.

  1. Know your audience.
    During my first week as a summer associate, one of my associate mentors said something that stuck with me throughout the summer.  He said, “One thing you should realize is that you might turn in something for one attorney, and he might say, ‘Hey, this is great!’  Then you might turn in the exact same product for another attorney, and he might say, ‘This could use some work.’  So you need to know who you’re working with.” 

    This applies to oral communication with attorneys as well: different people have different preferences.  Some attorneys want you to come and knock on their office door unannounced and will be happy to chat with you for an hour or more.  Others want no more than a scheduled introduction and one or two brief emails.

    Try to learn where your assigning attorney falls on the spectrum.  Ask associates who regularly work with the assigning attorney, the attorney’s legal assistant, or your summer program coordinator.  That way, you will be prepared when the attorney only fires quick email responses to your questions or sits you down with a cup of coffee and proceeds to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the history of the Federal Rules of Evidence.
  1. Take notes.
    When you meet with your assigning attorney, make sure that you don’t forget your questions or their responses.  It’s frighteningly easy to draw a blank just as you’re walking into their office and again after the meeting when you’re trying to remember the details of the discussion.  Bring along a notepad that contains some self-reminders and scribble down notes of the chat, especially if the topic is complex.  Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions, but be aware of time and non-verbal cues.  If it appears that the attorney is in the middle of something and the meeting is going longer than anticipated, don’t outstay your welcome.  Make the time you do have count by taking notes and remembering precisely the clarifications you have received.
  1. Manage expectations.
    At the firm where I spent my 2L summer, the attorneys made clear that it was almost always more important to do excellent work than to meet every deadline.  This did not mean, however, that summers could submit work late without communicating about the delay in advance.  If you think an assignment is going to take longer than expected, give your assigning attorney a heads-up.  Likewise, if you are writing a memo and it is getting excessive in page length, let them know, especially if the assignment initially seemed small.  Sometimes the attorney will want you to submit a large assignment in pieces or cut out a less important part.  When the attorney knows what to expect as the assignment progresses, it becomes more likely that his or her expectations will be met.
  1. Take one extra step.
    People often talk about “going the extra mile.”  This is a dangerous concept for summer associates.  If going the extra mile to you means “writing an extra ten pages,” resist the urge.  If it means “addressing extra issues,” please don’t. Attorneys don’t want to read more than they have to and they aren’t likely to care about answers to questions they haven’t asked. 

    Rather than “going the extra mile,” consider just taking one extra step.  You probably have already put together an excellent memo, so focus on making what’s there even better.  Tighten up a few parentheticals.  Eliminate that last typo. 

    And, when you submit the assignment, make sure the attorney knows that you are available to do additional work if necessary.  Often the attorney will be happy with your work but will have a few suggestions.  If you can use those suggestions to submit a revised product that is more helpful to the attorney, he or she will be all the more impressed with your submission and you will have gained deeper understanding of what makes great work product.  Taking the extra step can be as beneficial as going the extra mile.

These four steps are relatively common-sense but are easy to forget amidst the business of trying to balance multiple assignments, attend lunches and social events, and remember everyone’s names.  Navigating personalities is never easy, and attorneys can be very particular.  But by knowing your audience, taking notes on what they tell you, managing their expectations, and taking that one extra step to do follow-up work, you can develop a reputation at your summer firm as an organized, clear communicator who exceeds expectations and responds well to feedback.  And that reputation can only help your future prospects.

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About the Author

Benjamin Potts is a rising third-year student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he currently serves as a Senior Editor for the Journal of Constitutional Law.  Ben spent his 2L summer at the law offices of Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, in Wilmington, Delaware.

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