The Importance of Asking "Why?"

Meredith E. Carpenter
Understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing can give you meaning and purpose; it can also make you feel more fulfilled and engaged.

Understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing can give you meaning and purpose; it can also make you feel more fulfilled and engaged.

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As a new lawyer, you often don’t have much control over the work you’re given. You’re expected to help out a wide range of people at your firm, and you’re frequently pulled into ongoing client matters to work on discrete tasks without having much involvement in those matters before the assignment. To complete those assignments successfully (and get repeat work), it’s important to ask why you’re being asked to do them. When you know why you’re doing something, you can produce work that accurately addresses the issue at hand and adds value by anticipating other issues that may also relate to the matter. Here are some tips and suggestions on when and how to ask why as you undertake legal assignments:

Getting the Assignment

When a partner calls you into her office and asks you to work on something for her, make sure you understand why she’s asking you to do that assignment. The partner is not just asking you to do work because she thinks you need something to do—she really needs someone to take care of something for her. Try to figure out the context of the assignment by identifying the specific problem the partner is trying to solve for her client and how the work she’s asking you to do will help address that problem.

If what the partner tells you does not illuminate the larger context of the assignment, or if there’s something about the assignment that seems odd to you, do a little investigation to see if you can figure it out. If you’re not comfortable asking the partner to explain the larger context of the assignment to you, ask another associate who’s involved in the matter, or take a look through the files related to the matter to get a sense of what’s generally going on in the matter. Letters and emails can be very valuable to get background information; just make sure that you verify with the partner or associate once you think you have a handle on the matter to make sure you haven’t missed an important development that’s not yet included in the files. Although you don’t want to waste time before getting started on an assignment, taking the time to figure out what’s going on in the matter and how your work will contribute to it (i.e., why you’re being asked to do the work) is time well spent.

Doing the Work

Once you have a handle on the matter and why you’ve been asked to do an assignment, you should continuously ask why as you dig into the work. If you’re doing a research assignment for a litigation matter, you’ll likely find a judicial opinion or statute that seems to apply to your case. If you’re doing transactional work, you’ll likely find a helpful provision that another person drafted for a different deal. Before just accepting those findings and concluding your research or drafting, make sure you know why those opinions, statutes, or contractual provisions apply to your situation.

For opinions, make sure you understand the reasons for the court’s particular decision. The holdings of a case are almost always dependent on the factual circumstances, so you should figure out whether there’s something factually dissimilar about that case that could affect its applicability to your case.

For statutes, try to figure out why a statute you’ve identified was enacted to make sure that it should apply to your situation. Although you don’t necessarily have to do a full legislative history for every statute you find, you should make sure that you understand its context within the larger legislative scheme. A provision in a statute may seem to fit your case perfectly, but you could be way off in your analysis if you haven’t looked to see whether the provision is part of a larger law that doesn’t apply to the particular circumstances of your case.

Similarly, for contractual provisions that you may want to borrow from other deals in doing transactional drafting, you should make sure that you understand the context of those other deals. If you don’t understand the context of those other deals, you won’t catch the ways in which the terms in the provisions may not be helpful for your deal. Understanding why those terms were used in the other deals will help you determine how to apply those terms to yours.

In doing both research and transactional work, the “whys” you should ask yourself are reality checks that will ensure your analysis is accurate and targeted to the particular circumstances in your matter.

Presenting the Work

After you’ve done the research or the initial drafting, you should again ask why before presenting the work. The partner does not just want an overview of the law; she wants something that she can actually use in solving her client’s problem. To give her what will be most useful, focus again on why your assignment helps her solve her client’s problem, and then present your work with that in mind. When you present your work in a format that the partner can easily incorporate into her own, you’ll earn her appreciation and repeat business.

Progressing in Your Career

Finally, asking why is critical to find meaning in your career. Days can be long as a lawyer; pressure can be high. Understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing can give you meaning and purpose; it can also make you feel more fulfilled and engaged.

Although you may be new to the practice of law, you should never approach assignments as just grunt work. Everything you do is contributing to some end goal. When you know what that end goal is, you’ll be more engaged with your assignments, and you’ll produce a work product that will establish you as a go-to lawyer in your firm.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Probate & Property magazine, volume 33, issue 3, published by the American Bar Association Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section. Learn more about membership in the Real Property, Trust and Estate Law Section. 

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Meredith E. Carpenter

Meredith E. Carpenter is a staff attorney for the Supreme Court of Virginia.