Supervising lawyers, whether in-house or outside, can profit from giving clear instructions to their charges. The same goes for general counsel types who oversee the work of law firm types regardless of seniority.
Blawgletter learned that from clerking for a Fifth Circuit judge — The Honorable Jerre S. Williams — going on a quarter century ago. His Honor favored me and my fellow clerks with a memo that laid out what he expected of us — including hard work, reliability, and integrity. The instructions gave us confidence and made us want to do our best for him.
Some lawyers in our firm also put together "Tips on Working for Me" memos for those they supervise. Ideally, the thing should evolve with new insights, technologies, and changes in your practice and preferences.
Our "Tips" memo did that — evolve — just today. We offer the latest version for your consideration and improvement.
Tips on Working with Me
1. Always remember why we have fun and rewarding work to do – because the client needs our help. We must make top-notch lawyering and service to the client our first priority. Everything we do follows from that.
2. I want you to develop into the best lawyer you have the capacity to become. You wouldn’t work here if we didn’t believe you have the qualities necessary to succeed. Everyone – the client, the firm, you, and me – benefits from your progress as a lawyer. Keep that in mind any time you feel you shouldn’t pester me about something. You should bother me if it will help the client or help you get better.
3. You should feel the same way towards the lawyers who come after you. Remember that your future success, far more than mine, depends on theirs.
4. I expect you to take the initiative in moving cases forward. Use your judgment. Decide what to do and do it. Challenge yourself. Get help (from me or others) if you need it, but don’t let worry about making mistakes paralyze you. You will make mistakes; everybody does. Honest errors very seldom make a difference in a case, and you won’t lose standing if you own up to your misstep and take care not to repeat it. Plus you’ll learn faster and accomplish more for the client.
5. When preparing any kind of document (memo, letter, pleading, brief) for me, get it in final shape before sending it to me. You should consider it ready to go out – complete, comprehensive, and with all the polish it could ever need. I don’t expect perfection, but I do insist on your best work. Sloppiness drives me nuts – including in things like incorrect citation form, improper punctuation, bad grammar, and misspellings – because I suspect that it reflects inattention, fuzzy thinking, or worse.
6. Send drafts to me as Word attachments to emails. Make sure to include a date/time stamp and the iManage footer on each draft so I can quickly locate it on the system. Don’t use an iManage link, which I can’t access from outside the office.
7. I will usually finish off drafts of short items that you send me and get them out myself. Unless time pressures intervene, I will do my best to make suggestions on improving the draft by putting them in a redline version of the document and sending the draft with redlining back to you via email for further work. I may add other thoughts in the email. You should then turn out a new draft and return it to me – in redline so I can see what you’ve changed from your last draft — as soon as you can so I don’t lose track of the project. You may also bring the draft to me so we can discuss my suggestions and your thoughts about the best ways to improve our work product. Do it soon, though, because I clear my mind of projects that I’ve finished, and new projects will crowd out my memory of the details of your work product.
8. I always have 10-20 cases as well as several case acceptance matters going at once. When visiting me about a matter, take a few seconds to refresh my memory about it. A lot of times that reorients my thinking so that I can respond more quickly.
9. I want you to consult me any time you want or need my attention, but please make efficient use of my time.
10. If you ask me, I will set a time each week when you and I can meet or talk on the telephone. The session doesn’t have to relate to specific cases. It could deal with things like an issue you’ve run across in a matter that doesn’t involve me, preparing for a meeting or hearing, business development, or your progress as a lawyer.
11. If you don’t understand something I’ve told you or done, ask me to clarify or elaborate. I may assume you get what I’ve said or done even though I didn’t tell you enough or told you or did something wrong or confusing. I don’t mind gentle correction. In fact, I depend on you to help me avoid mistakes. Do this part of your job especially well!
12. I generally prefer to draft case acceptance memos myself. Sometimes, though, I will ask you to assist. Usually I will want you to research and add factual details or to insert legal analysis. I will take care of writing the fee proposal.
13. I hold strong views about my own writing. These include:
a. Dislikes: passive voice, split infinitives, misspellings, verbs that don’t agree with subjects, legalese, leaving out an open or close parenthesis or a quotation mark, starting a quotation with an ellipsis, block quotes, non-Blue Book citation form, reciting the other side’s argument without – in the same sentence – trashing it, calling parties “plaintiffs” and “defendants” instead of by their names, unimportant facts, failure to check citations, verbosity, unnecessarily repetitive use of a word, burying important arguments or authorities in footnotes, the word “clearly”, phrases like “in the end” or “after all”, personal attacks on opposing counsel, using uninformative headings, and failure to show how the cases that you cite support our position.
b. Likes: respect for the reader, realizing that the reader doesn’t have much reason to trust you (yet), appreciating that you should therefore aim everything you write at earning the reader’s trust and enhancing your credibility, active voice, conciseness, vibrant verbs, strong nouns, few adjectives and fewer adverbs, synonyms, quoting an especially important or helpful authority rather than paraphrasing it, smooth transitions and strong connections from one paragraph to the next, headings (in briefs) that highlight good facts instead of conclusions, elegant analogies, taking the other side’s arguments early-on and head-on (and not in footnotes, for Pete’s sake!), citing cases whose holdings supports our position, never citing a case just for a good quote, starting with a punchy explanation of why our position should prevail, including (in briefs and memos) a short statement of the case to explain its procedural posture, and a non-argumentative fact section that – despite its apparent neutrality – leaves the reader with the conviction that our side should win.
14. By the way, I don’t expect you to write precisely as I do. You shouldn’t. You have your own voice. Most lawyers never find theirs, and many of those who do discover it through hard work and trial and error. Parker Folse writes beautiful prose but in a style very different from mine. Pick up from me (and others) anything you find useful and discard the rest.
15. You can contact me any time. Email usually works best, but feel free to call me in the office, on my cell phone, or at home if you need to.
16. Err on the side of over-informing trial team members, especially clients, of developments in their cases. Assume, unless they or I say otherwise, that clients should get a copy of everything that comes into or goes out of our offices, including letters, briefs, pleadings, and memos. You shouldn’t write anything that you wouldn’t want the client to see.
17. If you make a mistake, fess up pronto. Trying to hide errors can make them more dangerous, increase your stress, and hurt your effectiveness; it also turns you into a liar. Getting the truth out quickly, on the other hand, nips the problem in the bud and enhances your trustworthiness.
18. Keep emails to me short. If something requires that much explanation, call me or see me about it in person. Don’t assume that I’ve read long emails.
19. Clients want me to stay on top of their cases. I need your help in doing that. If you think a document or issue needs my close attention, note that in a message to me, either in an email or a voicemail or on the routing slip, or pay an in-person visit to alert me to the situation.
20. I will generally route emails and other documents that come to me first to the entire trial team, often without comment. If I think of something that I want a trial team member to do in response, I will put it in an email or ask him or her to see me to discuss the assignment.
21. After a deposition, email to me and the other trial team members, including the client (unless a protective order provides otherwise), the highlights of what happened.
22. Notify me as soon as possible if you think you can’t meet a deadline or have a conflicting assignment. I will understand if you alert me in time to make alternative arrangements. I might not if you don’t.
23. I love for you to seize the initiative in moving cases forward and to make tactical decisions on your own. Charge! In the rare instance of a problem that you can’t resolve yourself, take a few minutes to think through possible solutions and recommend a course of action. That will help me focus on the alternatives and will help you learn how to deal with similar problems in the future.
24. Avoid fights with the other side. That goes double for discovery disputes. If a dust-up looks likely, let me know promptly. The problem may result from dealing with lawyers who don’t have enough experience or authority to work things out reasonably. My intervention with a more senior lawyer on the other side may resolve the issue.
25. I expect you to keep track of the deadlines in each case we work on together, to familiarize yourself with the terms of all case management and protective orders, and to possess near-encyclopedic knowledge of the applicable rules of civil procedure and of the forum’s local rules. Many times associates ask me a question that they could have answered themselves if they had consulted one of these basic sources. If I ask you what the applicable rule says about a legal issue that you’ve contacted me about, let’s hope you don’t have to say you don’t know!
26. Never treat anyone with disrespect, no matter how disrespectfully he or she has treated you. Pigs like mud fights and especially enjoy getting you dirty too.
27. Always, always, always tell the truth. Always.
28. We work in a profession whose best practitioners excel in divining creative solutions to problems. A lot of the process goes on inside our heads. If you want to learn more about the creative aspects of lawyering, ask a senior lawyer to talk through the act of creation, which you may think of it as strategizing.
29. If you want or expect me to attend or participate in a conference call, meeting, hearing, or other event, send me an Outlook invitation that includes the necessary details. That way, I can put it directly on my Outlook calendar by “accepting” the invitation.
30. Suggest ways to improve this memo.
31. Have fun.