So, it’s day one (or two or three, if your firm likes its new hires to get through the computer training before they’re staffed up), and the phone rings.
(The Staffing Coordinator): “Can you help so-and-so with such-and-such?… Great. Please reach out to them when you have a second.” ::click::
The instinct of most juniors is to just snap to it and scurry to so-an-so’s office. But it’s worth taking a beat and collecting your thoughts. That first meeting—the staffing meeting—is critical to your success as a junior lawyer because it’s usually the best, and sometimes the only, opportunity for you to gather the essential information you need in order to deliver great work to your supervising lawyer.
What makes a junior’s work great? For today’s purposes, focus on three things:
- it’s high quality (i.e., gets the analysis right, is appropriately polished (see our last post), etc.);
- it’s delivered in the form that the supervising lawyer needs it (we’ll dive into this in a future post); and
- it’s delivered on time.
This isn’t law school. Great analysis isn’t enough. You not only need to understand what your seniors need done, but how they want it done (i.e., what should the deliverable look like) and when exactly they need it by. When it comes to how your work will be received and evaluated, the latter two items are every bit as important as the former. And the staffing meeting is how you make sure that you put yourself in a position to get all three of these things right. So have a plan, and take advantage.
Have a plan
Start with the initial staffing call. Try to gather as much information from the staffing coordinator about the new matter as possible. (Figure out, if you can, the client, the counterparty, the type of matter, the team at the firm, etc. The coordinator may not know everything, but he or she will often have sufficient detail to get you started on the below. If the request came to you by email, read down the email chain. It may include the initial staffing request from the team, which will have relevant background.) You won’t always have time between the staffing call and the staffing meeting, but—if you do—use it. Google the client; figure out what they do. Learn about the counterparty. If the matter type is something familiar, try to refresh your memory about it as best you can. If it’s something completely unfamiliar (and—prepare yourselves—there’s going to be a LOT of that going around), hop on the interwebs and try to learn something about it. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You’re not trying to do all of your background research pre-staffing meeting. Your goal is simply to learn enough about the relevant moving pieces so that (a) the context will help whatever you hear in the staffing meeting “stick” in your head and make sense to you, and (b) you’ll have the awareness and vocabulary that you need to ask the right follow-up questions. And the questions are key.
Come in to every staffing meeting with the mindset that it is your responsibility to walk out of that door with the information that YOU, as an individual, need to get the job done right and deliver great work.
Different mid-level and senior associates are better or worse at instructing juniors on various types of tasks. You need to be prepared, therefore, to take an active role in these meetings and help shape the outcome. Come in to every staffing meeting with the mindset that it is your responsibility to walk out of that door with the information that YOU, as an individual, need to get the job done right and deliver great work. That may, and often will, require you to (tactfully) tease out more information than the senior initially served up by following up with clarifying questions. At a minimum, be laser-focused on ensuring that you have a clear understanding of what exactly it is that the senior associate expects to receive from you when, and in what specific format.
(Here’s a little secret. There are times when even the best instructors of juniors don’t know exactly what they want from you when a staffing meeting begins. It could be that they’ve been too busy to really think through the relevant task in advance. Or it could be that they, themselves, don’t yet know enough about the applicable subject matter to have a view or an instinct about the best way to go about things. I’ve been guilty of both of these. Moreover, as a busy senior, sometimes you tell yourself that you just want something to react to, or that you’ll have time to poke around later and follow-up with the junior to clarify the ask. But a lot of times, this inadvertently sets the junior associate up for failure. Odds are good that, without proper early guidance, they’ll get off on the wrong track and end up delivering something that’s not actually that helpful or on point. That’s bad for the junior because—fairly or unfairly—it may leave a less-than-favorable impression of that junior’s work in the mind of the senior, and it’s also bad for the senior because they then don’t have the benefit of good work to build upon and are left having to scramble and redo something from scratch. As a junior—and you have to be tactful here, but—sometimes you can help both yourself and the senior by pressing for better, clearer and more concrete instructions early, helping to focus the senior’s attention on open questions at a time when the answers will do the most good for you both.)
A Word of Warning
When you’re in a staffing meeting and the senior lawyer says something that you don’t understand, or uses terms with which you’re not familiar, a little voice in your head will say, “I should probably know what that is. I don’t want to look stupid. I’ll just look it up/figure it out when I get back to my office.” DO NOT LISTEN TO THAT VOICE. If you don’t understand something in a staffing meeting, ask for clarification. There will be plenty of times in your practice (as we’ll talk about this more in a later post) where it’s not only a good idea, but it’s best practice for you to turn over every stone you can yourself before reaching out to your senior associate for help. This is not one of those times. You won’t know how well you understand the task being asked of you—or what else you may be missing, or what other questions you may be failing to ask—if you stay silent.
You’ll sometimes hear senior associates advise or imply that juniors should limit the numbers of questions they ask. I understand where that’s coming from in certain contexts, but—when it comes to early staffing conversations—I couldn’t disagree more. First of all, there’s probably nothing wrong with your knowledge base in the first place. Whatever it is you don’t get, it’s likely something that there’s no good reason for you to know yet, and it just didn’t occur to the senior—so used to being immersed in the field—that he or she was glossing over something requiring explanation. And most seniors are very happy to explain and to teach. And second, even if the answer to the question IS something that the senior might reasonably expect you to know, the impression caused by you not knowing that thing in the initial staffing meeting is a tiny blip of frustration, likely gone in an instant, that will certainly be displaced entirely by the lasting impression caused by the quality of the work that you ultimately deliver. So keep your eye on the prize, and focus on what matters: the final work product.
A Few Tips
A couple of further thoughts to help you successfully navigate your early staffing meetings.
See the Whole Board
I believe it’s critically important for every lawyer on a team—including junior associates on their first day—to understand how their work or task, no matter how small or discrete, fits in to the broader deal. Understanding how everything fits together is not only essential to your development as a lawyer, but it’s also key to ensuring that the deliverable you generate is tailored to that broader context. When you’re just starting out, it’s going to be very difficult for you, as a junior associate, to understand that context on your own, so use the staffing meeting as your first opportunity to get the deal’s narrative and understand how what you’re doing fits in. It’s not wasted time; it’ll make you and your work more valuable to the team.
…use the staffing meeting as your first opportunity to get the deal’s narrative and understand how what you’re doing fits in.
Ask for Precedents
One of the best ways to pin down exactly what the senior is looking for is to ask if there’s a particular precedent that they would recommend or to which they’d like you to refer. (For the law students, a “precedent” on the corporate side is simply just a past example of something.) For example, if they’re asking you to create a chart summarizing the scope of certain IP licenses, in their mind’s eye they may be expecting that chart to look roughly—in terms of presentation, level of detail, etc.—like a chart they pulled together last year. If that’s true, wouldn’t you like to know about it? Nothing helps ensure that you and your senior are on the same page like having a physical example to refer to. Many seniors will serve this up for you themselves, but I’ve worked for plenty in my time who wouldn’t. (Pro tip: Be mindful to ask for this in a way that communicates “I’m trying to be as helpful and useful to you as possible by giving you exactly what you want”, as opposed to “can you help me find a shortcut or do my work for me?” Your attitude is key to threading this needle.)
Get a Concrete Deadline
The senior won’t always volunteer a concrete deadline for a deliverable. Ask for one. But, similarly to above, do so in a positive, I’m-just-trying-to-be-helpful kind of way. Say, “Sounds great. When would you like to review the draft?”, not “Ok. When do you need this by?” Try not to put the senior in a position of feeling like they’re making your life difficult, even if they are. (We address exceptions to this rule in a later post.) And, remember, the senior associate is almost certainly five times busier than you are. So it doesn’t matter what your understanding of the ultimate delivery deadline to the client is for the relevant piece of work. What matters is when the senior associate has time to turn to what you’ve done. Be the guy that makes your senior’s life easier by understanding his or her personal timeline and working to meet it.
After the Meeting
Finally, immediately after the staffing meeting, go straight back to your office, reread your notes, and fill in (yes—actually write down) any additional detail about the task or the deal that you can remember. It doesn’t matter how simple the task is, or how clearly you felt like you understood what was being asked of you at the time, when you get slammed later working on five different things at once and are trying to dig back in your recollection late at night for the exact instructions on how the senior wanted such-and-such done when you spoke two weeks ago, you’ll thank me. Those notes will save your life.
Once that’s done, think about your understanding of the task. Do you have all the information you need to get started? Try explaining the task out loud to yourself or—better yet—a colleague. Explaining a task to someone (verbally or in writing) is a great way to test how well you actually “get” it. If you realize there’s a gap in your understanding or a question you should’ve asked, go ask it. It may be uncomfortable in that moment (and we hope that the above can help you minimize such moments), but as we talked about above, an extra question now is—worst case—a minor inconvenience. Trying to work with incomplete information or an incomplete understanding will lead to MAJOR headaches.
Questions about how to handle staffing meetings? Have a different take on how to go about it? Let us know in the topic for this post in TIL or in the comments below.