In Post 3 on staffing meetings, we alluded to the fact that there may be times when you shouldn’t ask questions (at least right away) of your senior associates. This post is about when to ask questions, and—when you do—how to get the most out of the answers.
To Ask, or Not to Ask
As a brand-new junior associate, you’re in a bit of a tough spot. You’re generally tossed right in the mix and expected to begin churning out work—work that, in most cases, you know very little about. There’ll be a huge temptation, therefore, to reach out to your seniors early and often for help. That’s not always the right move. You’re going to have a TON of questions, and there’s simply no way for your seniors—who, themselves, are managing huge workloads—to take the time to walk you through answers to every question that crops up. Moreover, learning to answer your own questions is a foundational developmental milestone in the Biglaw world, so, circumstances permitting (meaning, that if you’re mid-fire drill and the client needs something in twenty minutes, of course the rules change), it’s important that you try to do whatever you can to answer your own questions wherever possible before looking up the chain for answers.
Still, there’ll be plenty of times when you’ll ultimately need a senior’s help. How will you know when the time is right to reach out to a senior associate with a question?
Here’s a great trick: when you ask a question to someone senior at the firm, always propose an answer. When faced with a question, challenge yourself to advance the ball as far as you possibly can and come up with a view on, or a guess for, the remaining bit that’s still uncertain. This is an important exercise with four key benefits.
…when you ask a question to someone senior at the firm, always propose an answer.
First of all, if you truly force yourself to continue wrestling with a question after that moment when you first get stuck, you’ll be surprised how often you’ll be able to unravel the mystery on your own. When you do, you’ll not only avoid spending your “question capital” with a particular senior associate, but you’ll gain lasting knowledge that will stick in your head because of the way you achieved it.
Second, you’ll give yourself invaluable experience at figuring things out on your own. This is a critical skill, and one that takes patience and practice.
In your early years, you’ll have the alternative route/safety valve of being able to ask a senior associate for help. But you’ll soon be moving up the seniority ladder yourself. And when YOU are the senior associate on a team and something unclear or unknown rears its head a few hours before a critical deadline in the middle of the night, you may be faced with only two options: figuring it out on your own or waking the partner (and his or her family) with a 3:00 a.m. phone call. Begin working now to avoid ever having to walk through door number two.
Third, even if you can’t actually unravel the mystery on your own, in almost every case, going through the exercise of coming up with a possible answer will help you drill down on your initial question to uncover the crux of the issue that’s causing you difficulty, bringing into focus the specific information that you require to complete the task. If you pull the trigger on your question too early, it is almost guaranteed that you’ll get an incomplete answer (e.g., because you hadn’t yet identified a second, corollary question lurking around the corner). Formulating an answer on your own will help you clarify exactly what you know, what you don’t, and what you need to move forward.
Fourth, the exercise will give you an opportunity to run a mini version of the training exercise discussed in our last post, “The Best Training You Will Ever Receive”. By proposing your own answers to questions and comparing them with the answer you get from your seniors, you’ll put yourself in a position to soak up as much of the learning and collective experience that went in to generating those answers as possible and to enjoy the other benefits discussed in that post. And you may get the answer right, which will be both impressive to your senior and a confidence boost for you. But even if you’re wrong, the fact that you came with a proposed answer demonstrates to your senior that you’re not there wasting their time. It will put them into “teaching” mode, as opposed to an “I’m being interrupted/having my time wasted” mindset. Don’t underestimate how powerful these little cues and their effects can be on the overall impression you’re cultivating within the firm. When people are busy and having lots of interactions with lots of different juniors, these general impressions can tend to stick and come to mind at annual-review time.
If you pull the trigger on your question too early, it is almost guaranteed that you’ll get an incomplete answer…
(On the topic of impressions, here are a few pro tips. Notwithstanding the process above, you’re inevitably going to be asking questions of your seniors. A lot of question. If you start feeling like you’re asking too many questions of one person, look for opportunities to rotate. If a question is general, as opposed to matter-specific, you can probably get a valuable answer from a number of different seniors in the group. Most seniors are usually happy to pause what they’re doing for a quick second to help a junior in need—particularly one with whom they have a solid relationship. (Note, it’s very important to be respectful of people’s time and sensitive to the fact that a particular person may be too slammed to help, so try hard to read the non-verbal cues well when you stick your head in someone’s office.) You can leverage your personal network to manage the number of questions you’re asking at any one time to avoid “wearing out your welcome” with any one person. Similarly, as you as you get more senior and your scope of responsibility grows, you can benefit from the same approach for gathering information outside of your core area of competency. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve saved myself a headache and a huge amount of time by reaching out to friends in other groups for a quick primer on a topic or a sanity check on a gut reaction. These are just a couple of the many reasons why it’s important to have strong relationships across your group and the broader firm.)
I understand why juniors are often too quick to pull the trigger on questions. I used to do it myself. No one wants to reinvent a wheel. And, in the moment, it often seems like it’s in everyone’s best interest for a junior to simply get the right answer to an open question from a senior as quickly as possible. But don’t underestimate the long-term value—to you, to your teams, and to your clients—of the exercise described above. It works. And it’ll make you a better, more self-sufficient, and more perceptive lawyer.
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When do you think is the right time for juniors to ask questions? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or in this post’s topic in TIL.
Great advice. The concept of managing your “question capital” is definitely key for new associates, and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else write about this.
It’s definitely something to think about. There are ways you can grow it (with the sorts of signaling we talk about above), but you always need to be mindful of the balance when spending it.
I’d add – look to your peers and be generous in helping them in return. If you are stumped, try asking 1-2 peers or a 2nd year – if they are also stumped it’s probably not a “stupid question”. A strong peer network is a great asset.
That’s a great point. The peer network is key. And I totally agree with the idea of being generous with your own help–both to be a good colleague and to help increase the chances you getting the support you need down the road. When I was at the firm and people would send around those blast emails asking for help with something, I’d always try to respond when I could. And I’d try especially hard if the asker was someone who’d done the same for me in the past. We’ll definitely try to work this important message into a future… Read more »
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