Career Files, Lawyers

An Open Letter To The Bosses Of Young Lawyers

After writing a few pieces advising young lawyers how to start off on the right foot in their new jobs, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to look at the question from the other angle: If you’re supervising a young lawyer (or a law student in a summer job), what can you do to help ensure a smooth transition?

Advice for the Care and Feeding of Young Lawyers (and Lawyers-to-be)

If you’re in charge of a law student intern, summer associate, judicial extern, or new hire, you’re probably pretty busy and stressed out yourself.It’s easy to view this fresh-faced “kid” in your office as just one more annoying thing you have to deal with before you can get down to your real task: billing hours. (Or, if you happen to have a more enlightened job, doing your actual important work.)

But pause for a moment and consider that — if you play your cards right — you might be able to farm out some of your work (or add to the billable hours pyramid that keeps the whole law firm edifice afloat), thus making your life easier! Win.

So here are some things to keep in mind:

This person desperately wants to please you. How many people in your life really care about making you happy? Probably not many. Your new hire does! Most law students and recent grads are natural people pleasers. They’ll work morning, noon, and night (and even all weekend if you ask) to make sure you’re happy with their work. What does this mean for you? Try to remember to throw a bone every now and again, and say, “Good job.” It won’t kill you, and it will ensure your new hire continues being the eager-to-please young thing you hired to begin with.

If something goes wrong, it’s probably your fault. Harsh, but true. Odds are you never got any management training before being assigned to supervise this person, so it’s easy to think that you did a good job explaining what you wanted, and they just failed to listen. (Or they’re an idiot, or whatever story you tell yourself when the proverbial shit hits the fan.) But the reality is that — as the supervising attorney — it’s your responsibility to make sure things are going smoothly. If you forget to mention some key aspect of the task, or assume your new hire “must know” something critical, it’s your fault. Don’t assume, communicate.

Know when to back off. After you clearly communicate what you’re looking for, it’s time to back off. Yes, you want to monitor the situation to ensure that progress is being made, but having someone call every ten minutes asking if you’ve found a case yet is NOT helpful. If you’re truly in an extreme rush situation, your new hire probably isn’t the best person for the task! This person has no idea what they’re doing, so things are going to take longer in the beginning. Live with it. (And plan accordingly.)

Make your expectations clear. If you want a case from a particular jurisdiction, say that. If you need the assignment by the end of the week, say that. If you want a report of exactly what’s been accomplished every day, say that. If there’s an upper limit on time or research money for the assignment, say that. You can have pretty much whatever you want (see #1), but you have to ask for it. Sadly, law school doesn’t teach mind-reading, although it would be a useful skill set!

Be open to new ideas. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how much you know, someone else will occasionally have a good idea that hasn’t occurred to you. Crazy, I know, but it happens. Before you reject something that doesn’t seem obvious to you, give it some thought. Maybe your young, tech-savvy hire is actually correct that your existing document management system makes no sense. (Not that they’d necessarily tell you that outright, but maybe you should probe a bit for ideas about how your workflow process could be improved, no?) You’re paying this person — you may as well aim to get your money’s worth.

Don’t be a jackass. Being a lawyer is stressful, we all know that. But you’re a grown up. If you’re having a really crappy day, go to the gym and do a kickboxing class. Don’t use your new hire as a punching bag. It’s a lousy thing to do, and it’s bad for your karma. Do it enough, and all your employees will quit. Where will you be then? If you’re naturally a jerk — or if working as a lawyer has turned you into one — it’s time to get that under control. Trust me, everyone around you will be a lot happier, and, not accidentally, will produce much higher quality work (thus giving you less to get upset about). Yay, positive feedback loop.

Do your homework. You’re a lawyer, you know how to learn things. You know who’s given a lot of thought to the challenges of managing employees? Business people. Try reading a little Peter Drucker on your commute, or subscribe to the Harvard Business Review and flip through it when you’re bored at work. It’s pretty fascinating, and you might learn something useful.

Say “Thank you.” Seriously, just do it. Everyone’s working hard, and is doing the best they can. A little gratitude goes a long way.

Best of luck, and may all your hires be good ones!

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