Communication is an art rather than a science, and effective communication skills are essential to the practice of law. For young associates, adequate communication skills can be critical to their success in the legal field. Here are few tips for young associates to enhance their communications with clients, colleagues, opposing counsel, and courts.
Communicating with Clients
The touchstone of client service is effective communication. Young attorneys often operate from a place of enthusiasm and excitement without adequately establishing reasonable timelines and expectations based upon the case’s facts. However, a key to successfully managing client expectations is to assess all relevant data to convey an objective, realistic picture of potential outcomes and hurdles. While establishing timelines can be a challenge, calendaring tasks to meet anticipated deadlines and looking to the life cycle of other, similar cases may help to inform those expectations. In short, do not let passion overcome reason.
Communicating with Colleagues
Effective communication with colleagues may require substantial flexibility. As a young associate, you are often required to assist multiple attorneys. As a result, you are faced with tackling multiple personality types and styles of practice. The key to success here is adaptability. Be flexible, do not be afraid to ask questions, and look to your colleagues’ past work product to discern their preferences and practice styles. Also, do not get involved with office gossip. You have plenty to learn as a young associate and the last thing you want to do is be intertwined in office drama.
Communicating with Opposing Counsel
Communicating with opposing counsel can often be challenging, especially as a young associate. Seasoned opposing counsel can sense a young associate like a shark can sense blood in the water. They may employ tactics such as trying to either be your friend or bully you. It is important to be courteous, professional, and cooperative; but do not be afraid to set limits and zealously advocate for your client. In setting those boundaries, keep in mind the goals of your case and which measures will ultimately serve your client’s best interest. Also, when opposing counsel asks you to commit to a position on an issue, it is often wise to tell them that you need to confer with your client and/or co-counsel before offering an official response. It is standard practice to consult your client and/or co-counsel before making agreements. This also allows you to be responsive, but not rushed into decisions you may later regret.
Communicating with Courts
Your communication with the court is likely the most critical to the outcome of your client’s case. Court rules and practices are constantly evolving. As a young professional, your legal education does not stop when you pass the bar. You are held to an even higher standard and must stay apprised of rule amendments, local rules and practice, and judicial preferences. By way of example, but not necessarily limitation, local rules and judicial preferences may require some of the following:
- filing certain materials in a searchable PDF format
- providing the court’s courtesy copies of longer documents in three-ring binders
- emailing Word versions of proposed orders to chambers
- meeting and conferring with opposing counsel before raising discovery disputes with the court
- seeking leave of court before filing certain motions or briefs
Moreover, attention to detail, review, and application of the court’s rules and preferences can save you time and resources particularly where they allow you to forego more formal procedures for securing relief. For example,
- some courts will allow pro hac vice admission upon consent without a formal motion; and/or
- some courts will grant a request for an extension of time upon consent through submission of a proposed order and an accompanying letter memorializing your adversary’s consent, without the need to file a formal stipulation or joint motion.
Accordingly, as soon as your judge is assigned, review both the local rules and the judge’s individual webpage for any stated rules or preferences. You may also learn of unwritten preferences by asking colleagues who have experience with your judge. Beyond the advantages of saving time and managing resources, mastering the rules and meeting the court’s expectations will ensure that you never have to explain to a client that his or her case was just terminated because you made an avoidable procedural mistake.
Audra Petrolle is an associate with Rose Law Group pc in Phoenix, Arizona.