One of my favorite parts of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (previously reviewed here) is the section debunking the myth that a new lawyer is a potted plant. It’s easy for a new lawyer to get tripped up by the knowledge that he lacks experience and the desire not to appear arrogant. So, what’s a new associate to do while learning the lay of the land?
1. Don’t be silent. A great many new lawyers will be too young to remember the “potted plant” reference. When Oliver North was testifying in connection with the Iran Contra hearings, the questioning attorney rebuked North’s counsel Brendan Sullivan for his frequent objections, and Sullivan replied, “What am I, a potted plant? I’m here as a lawyer. That’s my job.”
The moral of this story for new lawyers is, of course, that your job requires you to speak up and to participate in whatever is going on. A new lawyer is unlikely to have the deciding vote on much of anything, but you’re a fresh brain and new eyes, and your perspective is valuable. Don’t be arrogant, but do be confident in your ability to contribute.
Some lawyers who are reticent to speak up will need to break out of their comfort zone or to find another method to share their thoughts. Staying silent is career suicide. If this is a stumbling block for you, get help from a mentor or coach. Now.
2. Ask questions, wisely. A new lawyer isn’t expected to know everything about the facts of a case, or the controlling law, or the client, or… You get the idea. However, it’s important to use good judgment in deciding what questions to ask and what you need to discover on your own. Initiative is a common measuring stick for attorney development, and it’s unwise to get a reputation for asking questions without forethought. So, ask questions, but make sure you put thought into your inquiry.
3. Don’t preface questions/comments. Especially when new and uncomfortable, lawyers may have a tendency to preface their questions or comments with a disclaimer, such as: “I may be wrong, but…” or “This might be a stupid question, but…” or “Do you think maybe it would be better to…” These prefaces remove all power from the question or comment. Of course, judgment comes into play here too, because it may be quite wise to say something like, “I realize the law is unsettled in this area, but it seems to me that…” Don’t let yourself off the hook in a preface, but do signal appropriate uncertainty.
4. Manage your tone and breath. Some lawyers, especially new lawyers, get nervous and their voice shakes a bit or they stumble over words. And sometimes a lawyer will end a suggestion with a tonal question mark. Be attentive to your speech pattern. End statements with a downward tone and questions with an upward tone, and don’t reverse the two. Explore breath control for presentations. And remember to breathe — and to breathe out before you breathe in.
5. Be thoughtful. Make sure your comments and questions reflect the thought and analysis you’ve put into the issue. Especially in the early weeks and months of a new job, one of the key tasks is to demonstrate consideration of all the relevant factors and the process of arriving at a well-reasoned and insightful suggestion or comment. On this point, see What Are You Thinking? on the always thought-provoking What About Clients? blog.
6. Be ready to respond to questions. When you’re asked for an opinion, do have one. It need not be correct, necessarily, but you need to be ready to share and explain it. Here again, the goal is to demonstrate your insight and your thought process.