January 2017

Essential Questions to Ask Every Supervising Attorney

By Robert Bryson

Engstrom, Lipscomb, & Lack

Congratulations, counselor. You passed the hardest bar in the country. Now comes the hard part—becoming an effective attorney. Effective attorneys can do many things: satisfy clients; present concise, cogent arguments; and communicate effectively. Overlooked, however, is one essential skill—asking effective questions.

Overcoming Insecurity

As new attorneys in your new job, you may be consumed with doing well and impressing the partners. You may have especially felt this pressure, to appear as competent as possible, if you worked as a law clerk. 

For those of you that recognize the pressure, here is some truth that you hopefully already learned: feeling the pressure is a horrible habit. The need to appear competent undermines your judgment and leads you into unwise decisions that endanger your client, your firm, and your career.

By way of illustration, a firm hired a number of young associates. One of these associates recently passed the bar and this was that associate’s first full-time position as an attorney. The associate was on the job not two days before they were assigned a relatively simple motion. The associate spent all day on it and, unbeknownst to anyone else, was completely overwhelmed. In a panic, the associate signed the motion on behalf of the senior attorney and gave it to a paralegal to file. The firm had no idea.

In short, the associate drafted a motion and submitted it to the court, without input or revisions from any experienced attorney. The associate felt the pressure, and that pressure got the better of them. While in this story the firm was able to correct the mistake with a follow-up, the associate could have seriously endangered the case.

Seasoned attorneys regularly run their work by another attorney. Regardless of experience, you never know what you may have missed and you are better safe than sorry.

If you remember nothing else from this article remember this—if you are confused or lost, ask questions. Don’t act impulsively and don’t go it alone. Your supervising attorney may get irritated, but it is far better to ensure good work product.

Essential Questions

Now that we have overcome years of insecurity, what questions do you ask? It isn’t enough to say, “I’m confused, what do I do?” You need to ask questions that illustrate your grasp of the subject matter while also clarifying specific points.

I find that the best way to drill down to the “essential” questions is by asking, “How can I make my supervising attorney’s life easier?” What does your supervising attorney typically forget? Deadlines? SOLs? Copying documents into the firm server? Service?

Obviously, the questions that are “essential” will change from attorney to attorney but, in general, here are some common issues:

Deadlines

Deadlines are easy. Sometimes supervising attorneys juggle this information in their head and forget to convey it to junior associates.

Always ask your attorney how long you have to finish—hours, days? Don’t forget to ask for the filing or response deadlinethat will tell you the urgency you need to assign this task.

Communication

Always clarify who needs to be looped in. Who should you "cc" on final drafts? Usually, you will need to keep in contact with the assigned paralegal/legal secretary, attorneys on your team, and supervising attorneys.

Audience

Often you will be asked to draft a memorandum discussing "X" law or explaining the impact of a recent decision. When the audience is not readily apparent, always ask your attorney for whom this memo is being written.

Will a senior partner review this memo? Is it going to be included in an email to a client or to opposing counsel? The tone and style you adopt will change based on your audience (I’m sure many of you remember this from the bar). You want to draft your memos in such a fashion that enables the senior partner to “plug and play” your research into whatever they need, briefs, motions, or letters.

Exemplars

Finally, always ask for an exemplar (if they have one). Working with a sample will always keep your time commitment and formatting errors to a minimum.

With those questions answered, all you need to do is present a final product to your supervising attorney. If you can avoid it, never submit work that isn’t “file ready.” Some supervisors prefer status updates so they can review your work to make sure you are on the right path, but do not assume that approach.