March 23, 2021 Articles

Seven Key Takeaways on Handling First Assignments

Practical lessons that new attorneys should take to heart

By Leigh Joyce

As a perennial planner, I felt as though I was prepared to be a new attorney coming out of law school. I was wrong. Practicing as an attorney is very different than learning in law school. The professors even say as much in law school; however, you do not realize how true this is until you are in the trenches. “It’s a learning curve.” While I thought law school was the end of my formal learning journey, in truth that is not even close. So far, in my short tenure as an attorney, I have learned many valuable lessons to carry with me through my practice.  

1. Do Not Procrastinate.

You may believe that you have plenty of time to work on assignments, but the longer you procrastinate, the more the assignments pile up. Just start. Get the thinking process going. By getting started, you can get an idea of what to do, rather than sitting on the project and wait for an idea to come, which likely will not happen unless you start the process. You will be surprised how the ideas flow once you get started.

2. Never Be Afraid to Ask Questions or for Clarification.

This is essential to getting the work done and getting it right. Many times, as new attorneys, we do not know what questions to ask. My favorite line to use when I am unsure what question to ask an assigning attorney is, “I am going to start looking into this and will let you know.” Upon starting the project, write down every potential question you may have or areas of uncertainty. Make sure to ask the assigning attorney these questions. It is not embarrassing to ask questions. It is embarrassing, however, to work on an assignment for hours and hours and come back with a result that has nothing to do with the assignment.

3. Always Ask When an Assignment Is Due.

This will give you an idea of how to prioritize this new assignment with your existing assignments. Then, strive to get the assignment completed before this deadline.

4. Be Open and Honest.

Maintaining an open line of communication with those with whom you closely work is essential to completing assignments. Let your colleagues know how the assignment is coming along. This will (hopefully) alleviate any concerns they may have regarding your progress on the assignment.

5. Do Not Be Immobilized by Thoughts of Failure.

We are bound to make mistakes as new attorneys. The best thing to do is own up to any mistakes. Additionally, if you are unsure about how to complete the assignment, ask other associates or attorneys for input and advice. If you find yourself in a rut, do not be afraid to reach out. Every attorney has been in your position as a new attorney. It is okay!

6. Prepare for Everything.

Even a short meeting with another attorney. Read any applicable pleading, case law, statute, or other document prior to the meeting. This will give you a good idea of what to expect in the meeting and provides opportunity for you to develop thoughtful questions.

7. Read First the Table of Contents and Summaries of Lengthy Documents.

This ensures that you do not spend unnecessary time scrolling through and reading an entire document for a small section relevant to your assignment. It can be a great timesaver.

Finally, my favorite tidbits of advice:

  • do not overlook eating;
  • take a deep breath before you start the assignment and think about the end goal;
  • do not be mean to yourself—that is what adversary attorneys are for; and
  • if you get stuck in a rut, pause and rethink your strategy.

By no means have I mastered these skills; I am still in the process of learning the ropes. Practicing law is truly a learning curve, and a steep one at that. The process takes time and we must remind ourselves of this. It takes time to learn and that is exactly what you are supposed to do as a new attorney. One day, we will all get to the point where we know exactly what we are doing and feel entirely comfortable in doing it.

Leigh Joyce is a staff attorney at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Columbus, Ohio.


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