I’m tagging this as a “Biglaw Basics” post for search purposes, but the subject matter is anything but basic. It’s about owning your own development and a lesson I didn’t fully learn and appreciate until I had been practicing for several years. But once I learned it and began committing to the process described below, it had a profound impact on the quality of my work and was one of the most significant drivers of my development as I prepared for, and transitioned into, a more senior, client-facing role. In sum, this post is about the best training that you will ever receive while practicing law at a large firm.
Training is important. Since the practice of law is a knowledge- and judgment-based exercise, jump-starting the process of building a knowledge base and cultivating judgment is a key part of establishing a successful Biglaw trajectory. It has been my impression that, in recent years, many of the Biglaw firms have attached increased importance to, and made commensurate investments in, their associate training programs. I think that’s a very positive (and overdue) development. (Personally, I find well-conceived and well-run formalized training programs to be hugely helpful.) Based on my own experience, however, I also believe that the utility of that formal training pales in comparison to that of the training you can give yourself.
The practice of law is full of unknowns: the unknown answer to the difficult question; the unknown identity of the right questions themselves; the best way to balance a client’s various (sometimes competing) interests; or the path to effectively navigate and resolve tensions between contradictory rules and mandates. Junior lawyers have the added challenge that nearly every task is injected with further uncertainty because one can’t be sure whether something is unclear because that thing is actually unclear or, instead, because the junior hasn’t learned something yet or has missed a key point.
…the utility of that formal training pales in comparison to that of the training you can give yourself.
It’s no wonder, then, that when juniors are tasked to work on a project, they tend to treat their part of the work product in an atomized way. They deliver work that is narrowly responsive to specific instructions for discrete tasks, avoiding, wherever possible, the need to wrestle with or take a view on the types of unknowns raised above. When asked to research a question, for example, they might deliver a stack of highlighted cases or flagged provisions in precedent contracts, choosing to pass along only raw material and information to the senior for the senior’s analysis, rather than attempt to analyze and synthesize those materials in the first instance on their own.
True, at the beginning of your career, there will be plenty of times that something is genuinely and unavoidably unclear because of your limited knowledge and experience. But you’ll be surprised at how often the uncertainty you encounter is simply inherent to the task itself—meaning, it’s something that the team will have to wrestle with and take a view on regardless of the seniority of the lawyer that engages with the issue. You’re not simply a small cog in a large, finely-tuned advice-giving machine. You’re often the lawyer who is in the front-line trenches with the first opportunity—albeit with some seniority-driven limitations—to engage with the unknowns and difficult questions. Don’t shy away from that opportunity. Dive into it, head-first, keeping the following process in mind.
The work you’re being asked to do never exists in isolation. It’s always part of a broader whole, a bigger picture. Step one: understand how what you’re being asked to do fits in to that bigger picture. Once you have that contextualized understanding, refocus on the task that you’ve been given. Specifically, understand how what you’re being asked to deliver (and if you haven’t already done so, read our post on how to set yourself up for success in your staffing meetings) will ultimately be used by the lawyer directly above you. If you’re being asked to research a question of law, for example, know what sparked the question, who the audience is awaiting the answer (e.g., a partner seeking an internal confirmation versus a client expecting a formal legal opinion), and how that answer is expected to be delivered (e.g., is it an informal email versus a formal memo).
Once you understand both the broader context and the specific way that your work will be used, challenge yourself to deliver something to your senior associate in a form that it could leave HIS OR HER desk. Meaning, wherever and whenever possible, step up to the plate and try to deliver to your senior a polished draft—as complete as possible—of work that they themselves could pass along up the chain. Yes, there are times when this won’t really work, based on the nature of the task. (And if you’re not sure whether it’s appropriate in a particular situation, just ask.) But there are many more chances for you to roll up your sleeves, actually engage with the unknowns and uncertainties we talked about above, and take a crack at proposing answers to the open questions, crafting client-ready language that responds to the various interests and motivations at play, etc. In so doing, you’ll have to refine your understanding of issues presented; you’ll have to test your judgment to supply answers to difficult questions; and you’ll likely discover that there are a number of additional questions or uncertainties lurking beneath the surface that you didn’t appreciate at first blush. (Note, even if you’re not in a position to actually deliver the product of this sort of exercise to your senior as part of your deliverable in a particular case, you should always try to complete as many parts of this process for yourself as you can.)
It is absolutely a daunting exercise at the junior level. But it’s one that has immense value for both you and your senior associate, as described below. Don’t worry (as long, of course, as you’ve actually completed the narrow, underlying task, research, etc., assigned to you to the best of your ability) that you won’t be able to get the analysis, drafting, or presentation exactly right.
From your senior’s perspective, if your proposal is on point, he or she will be in a position to make a few tweaks to an existing draft and then quickly flip it up the chain or out the door (which leaves a hell of an impression on a busy senior associate evaluating your work). And even if your proposal is off base (as will often be the case in the early stages), your senior associate will have something concrete to react to, which will help clarify or crystallize their own thinking on the task at hand and save meaningful time. Either way, by taking a real crack at creating a fully baked first draft, you will have provided your senior with work that is immediately actionable.
From your own perspective, besides simply exercising an important skill set, you’ll be putting yourself in a position to receive the best training of your firm career.
…wherever and whenever possible, step up to the plate and try to deliver to your senior a polished draft—as complete as possible—of work that they themselves could pass along up the chain
Once you’ve delivered your work product to your senior associate, watch with laser-like focus what leaves his or her desk. How does it compare with what you served up? Was the core analysis the same? Were different aspects of the analysis emphasized or minimized? What form did their deliverable take? Was the tone different? Without exaggeration, there are dozens of lessons to be learned from all of the choices made in formulating a final piece of work or client-bound advice. But you won’t have the perspective to see the moving pieces unless you’ve first wrestled, on your own, with the same challenges and questions being confronted by the senior lawyer. Once you’ve gone through that exercise, however, your senior’s interpretative and strategic choices will speak volumes to you.
And the value doesn’t end there. You can continue to run this comparative exercise for each iteration of the work product. Watch the changes that the partner makes to the senior’s draft, and ask the same questions. What changed? Why?
If you see a change or a choice that you don’t understand, ask about it. Most senior lawyers are thrilled to talk through their work (e.g., why they framed a piece of advice a particular way, what they decided to highlight, why they left something unsaid) with their junior associates. And you won’t believe how enlightening those conversations will be to the tasks you complete in the future.
Review of the Final Work Product Alone is Not Enough
A huge amount of learning and experience goes in to generating and formulating client advice. Put yourself in a position to absorb as must of that learning—to benefit from as much of that experience—as possible. Formal training is very helpful, but nothing teaches you and develops your skills like engaging with live questions in real time.
And you can’t skip straight to step three. Review of the final work product alone is not enough. Unless you actually go through steps one and two above, the changes and choices reflected in the final work product won’t speak to you in the same way. But when you truly commit to the exercise, in full, even just a handful of times working under even just a handful of different supervising lawyers, your understanding—of the law, of how to advise clients, of how to frame and package advice, of what to say and not say—will take off like a rocket ship.
And later (with the benefit of the perspective gained from this exercise), watching the way that clients react to the advice of different senior lawyers in different instances will help you home in on your own view of what’s effective and will ultimately help you craft your own style of practice. You’ll soak up all the best habits, skills, and practices from those around you. But it won’t happen—at least not nearly as fast and effectively—without your focused engagement at the junior level.
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