Imagine you’re a senior associate running three deals on a breakneck timeline.  It’s one o’clock in the morning, you haven’t been home in 36 hours, and you’re on track to bill over 100 hours for the third week in a row.  You’re struggling through a complicated mark-up—trying to move on to the next item on a seemingly endless to-do list before the coffee you’ve been mainlining loses its war with your drooping eyelids—and there’s a knock on the door.

You look up to see one of your disheveled junior associates.  (She’s been pulling long hours, too.  Maybe not quite as long as yours, but still on track for a 300+ month.)  With pleading eyes and a dispirited voice, she asks, “Is there anything else you need me to do?”

What can you say?  How do you feel?

Now imagine the exact same scenario, except that the junior associate—rather than asking “Is there anything else you need me to do?”—asks instead: “What else can I do to help?” or “What can I do next?”

From the outside, it’s easy to see these two scenarios as rough equivalents.  But when you’re the exhausted senior associate, doing everything you can to keep the important balls in the air and your head above water, they feel as different as night and day.

The first scenario makes a senior feel like a slave driver, imposing pain and suffering on those under his or her charge.  It adds to their stress level, making them feel, at best, conflicted about asking you to stay and, at worst, like a bad human being for doing do so.  In stark contrast, the second scenario makes the senior feel like a captain with a loyal lieutenant sharing the load in the trenches beside him or her, helping to attack the common enemies of the clock and to-do list.

 In the high-stress world of Biglaw, these sorts of subtle differences in the way a junior chooses to communicate can have a profound impact on how he or she is viewed (and reviewed) within the firm.  Effective, thoughtful, and tactful communication can foster a hugely positive reputation and leave a powerful impression with your teams that will carry you through any number of mistakes or shortcomings in your early years as you grow and develop.

Biglaw is a team sport.  And effective, strategic communication with your team is incredibly important to your success.

(It’s not just about reviews and reputation.  In my experience, projecting the wrong attitude—so that you can go home a little sooner, for example—can be counter-productive.  Supervising lawyers (partners, senior associates, etc.) tend to be most protective of those team members that appear to be laying it all on the line and are always willing to roll up their sleeves and help.  It’s those juniors who seniors are most committed to ensuring don’t get driven too deeply into the red zone.  And those are the ones who the seniors will insist go home to catch a few hours’ sleep if things get too bad.  Moreover, consider this: if you go home after scenario one above, the person picking up your slack a few hours later (i.e., your senior) is likely to feel resentful during every minute of the additional work.  But if your senior felt like you were happy to stay and sent you home anyway because he or she thought you needed it, they’ll spend those same minutes feeling good about helping out a valued team member in need.  Those two experiences leave very different impressions.)

Biglaw is a team sport.  And effective, strategic communication with your team is incredibly important to your success. What constitutes effective, strategic communication in any particular case is highly specific to the facts, circumstances, and personalities involved, not one-size-fits-all.  But here are a few general guiding principles that will always serve you well.

Be Responsive. 

Responsiveness is one of the hallmarks of effective legal practice.  That applies to internal, as well as external, client-facing, communications.  It makes the person reaching out to you feel heard and inspires their confidence.  (And few things are more frustrating than reaching out to someone and not getting a timely response.)  Even if you’re not yet in a position to revert substantively, a simple “heard, understood, and acknowledged” (HUA) message can go a long way in setting the right impression in your supervising lawyer’s mind.    

(Pro Tip:  Further to the “be proactive” tip below, if you suspect the timing of your later substantive response might frustrate the person making the request, introduce the time constraint in your initial HUA reply.  For example, say “Sounds good—will do.  In terms of timing, I’m currently finishing a time-sensitive [x] that [y] needs by 2:00 p.m., but will turn to this immediately thereafter, if that works.”  That will help align the timing expectations between you and requester or give them an opportunity to follow-up if what you propose won’t work on their end.)

You’ve likely heard it before, but one of the best tips to be appropriately responsive internally is to treat your supervising lawyers like your own personal clients, responding to them with the same zeal and commitment as you would the firm’s clients that you’re billing by the hour.

In our post on “Adding Value on Day One,” we talked about taking responsibility for what you can do and getting it 100% right.  Responsiveness is something you can always get right.  It’s low-hanging fruit.  Take advantage.

Be Positive and Enthusiastic. 

When your job is loaded with pressure and stress, nothing is more refreshing and generates more goodwill than team members who respond with positivity and enthusiasm.  As a senior associate, I would have chosen (and routinely did choose) slightly less talented or developed team members who were happy warriors over technical rock stars with the wrong attitude.

It’s not always easy.  When you’re getting crushed and running on zero sleep, being positive and enthusiastic can take work and commitment.  But it’s worth the effort.  And not just for the reputational benefits.  Nothing, in my experience, lightens a crushing workload more effectively than having a positive attitude; and nothing makes it heavier than giving in to negativity.  In the same way that forcing a smile can help make you happier, projecting a positive attitude in your team communication can help foster that spark of internal positivity that will see you through the worst times.  So be a happy warrior, and fake it till you make it.

(Pro Tip:  You’ve probably heard that you should always try to say “yes” with enthusiasm when asked to lend a hand at your firm.  I agree with that (and believe it can actually be an empowering mindset to adopt because it short-circuits the otherwise constant flood of stress and frustration that accompanies each new request).  But if you’re ever in a position where you feel that you have to say no to a request, find a way to communicate that with positivity and enthusiasm.  For example, if someone asks you to do something and there is literally no way you can get it done on the required timeline, say that it sounds interesting and that you would love to help, but you’re concerned that a conflicting responsibility would prevent you from completing the task in an appropriate way.  Leading with positivity and enthusiasm lends credibility to your perceived conflict and makes it much more likely that the staffer will accept your declination.)

Nothing lightens a crushing workload more effectively than having a positive attitude; and nothing makes it heavier than giving in to negativity.

Seek Ownership and Be Proactive. 

Finally, don’t just be a passenger on the train of communication.  Take an active role in identifying what needs to be done on your matters, and claim responsibility for what you can.  And when seniors reach out to you for help, don’t just take the message at face value, giving it a narrow and parsimonious reading.  Read between the lines, fill in gaps, and take charge of not only of the requested task, but also any related workstreams.  (This is a perfect example of the “take ownership” mindset we described in in our “Adding Value on Day One” post.)

Additionally, be responsible for follow-up communications on open workstreams that are on your plate.  Don’t make seniors chase you.  They’ve got enough to worry about.  Keep them posted on your progress with an eye on approaching deadlines.  If you encounter any major problems or get substantially delayed in turning to a task, reach out to your senior early so you’re not creating an unexpected bottleneck or an unpleasant surprise.

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