I hate not understanding things. It’s the main reason I became a lawyer. And when I’m confronted with something I don’t know or understand—like when I used to get new assignments at the firm or new cases in my clerkship—I dive headfirst into background-research mode. My instinct is to try to learn everything—to try to get my mind fully around every part of a question or task—before I begin working, so that every single step is 100% right from the very beginning. I suspect many of you are the same. Biglaw lawyers are Type A, perfectionist types. But in the world of Biglaw—where nearly everything you’ll be asked to do (particularly early in your careers) involves new and complicated issues, and where time is your most precious resource—that learn-first, perfectionist instinct can actually hold you back.
Today’s tip? When you’re tackling something new, a task or question that requires background research, do this: put a reasonable clock on your background research in advance, and when that time is expired, just get started. Force yourself to put pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keys), earlier than you might otherwise be comfortable. Start drafting and see how far you get, see where you get stuck. That’ll show you exactly what answers you still need to move forward and get the job done right.
Force yourself to put pen to paper (or, more likely, fingers to keys), earlier than you might otherwise be comfortable. Start drafting and see how far you get, see where you get stuck. That’ll show you exactly what answers you still need to move forward and get the job done right.
I used to spend way too long spinning my wheels on unfocused background research. Sure—in some sense, learning is always a good thing and valuable. But when your time is severely limited, it can also come with a cost—both to you and to your clients. On the job, let your learning be focused by the tangible task at hand. Nothing illuminates exactly what you need to know better than trying to craft an answer or draft a document and seeing where you get tripped up or hit a fork in the road. Before you actually start, it’s very difficult—if not impossible—to distinguish between those things that you truly need to know and understand and those things that you don’t. When in doubt, let your own work product be your guide.
Remember “The Trick” we discussed in our post on asking questions (“To Ask, or Not to Ask—That Is the Question”)? It’s the same principle. When you actually begin advancing the ball on work, that exercise itself forces you to drill down on open issues, to separate what you don’t know from what you do, and uncover the crux of the issue that’s causing you difficulty, bringing into focus the specific information you need to complete the task.
Biglaw is a world of limitless things that you don’t know—and, therefore, potentially endless time to be spent learning. Improve your efficiency and efficacy as an associate by always striving to make your learning action-oriented and contextualized. Not only will the clearer focus help you research more effectively, it will help you developmentally. As we’ve discussed before in our “Best Training” post, the more tangible the context of your leaning, the more the answers you learn along the way will stick in your head and be there for you in the future.