Dan Hull, of What About Clients? blog fame, posted a key question that associates (really, all lawyers) must be able to answer at a moment’s notice: What are you thinking? As Dan put it, “If a neuron fires in a brilliant young lawyer’s head, and no one hears it go off, did it even happen?” Dan writes to encourage more senior lawyers to ask junior associates what they’re thinking and to teach those lawyers to volunteer their thoughts, and I couldn’t agree more.
But new(ish) lawyers are often uncomfortable volunteering their ideas, feeling that because they’re new and have a lot to learn about practice, it’s better (as Abraham Lincoln advised) to “remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” This fallacious belief is what Mark Herrmann, author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, refers to as the “potted plant” mistake. That “wisdom” backfires in the law firm setting, though. A new lawyer must add value immediately, and sharing questions or insights is the quickest way to do that. (It goes without saying that these insights must be well-considered, right?)
What I like about Dan’s advice is that the simple question, “What are you thinking?” creates an atmosphere of collegial inquiry. It not only allows more senior lawyers to get an insight into a newer lawyer’s thinking process, whether to reap the benefit of brilliance or to dispel a mistaken assumption before it causes harm, but also it open the opportunity for the newer lawyer to learn how the more senior attorneys are analyzing the issue at hand, sifting the important from the irrelevant, and cooking up an approach most likely to meet the client’s goals.
So, new(ish) lawyers, volunteer your thoughts, and ask what others working on your cases are thinking. (Don’t forget to ask paralegals and secretaries, too. You might be surprised at the insight that these people can have, and it’s a painless way to remind yourself that non-attorney legal professionals can make a variety of valuable contributions if provided the opportunity.)