I’ve begun including a new feature in my weekly email newsletter Leadership Matters for Lawyers, called “Ask Julie.” Readers can send in questions, and each week I select one to answer in the newsletter. Last week’s question and response generated quite a bit of discussion, so I’m sharing it here.
I’ve been working for a partner for two years now (since I started with the firm) and I still have no idea what he wants. He assigns something to me and tells me what he wants, but when I deliver it, he tells me he wanted something different. Last week is a perfect example. He asked me to prepare an outline for a deposition he’d be taking, and he told me that all he wanted was a topic outline with reference to the key documents. He specifically said he didn’t want any questions. So I prepared the outline and left it in his office, and about an hour later, he stormed into my office, furious that I hadn’t given him questions! I ended up working all night. I’m at my wit’s end with this partner. What do I do?
- Always, always take notes when this partner is giving you an assignment. If you see him coming and you don’t have a pad and pen, get one immediately.
- Be sure you ask clarifying questions so you’ve pinned down exactly what he’s telling you he wants. For example, if he says he doesn’t want deposition questions, you might ask whether he’d like an outline that mirrors how the questions might go or whether he’d like a topic-only checklist.
- For larger projects, send a confirming email and check in with the partner while you’re in the process of doing the work.
- To the extent possible, anticipate the changes that he might make. So, having had this deposition experience, you might choose always to write out questions (or to dictate them for quick transcription) even when he says he doesn’t want questions. There’s a balance here, of course, between anticipating what the partner might want from you and burning time that will be cut as unnecessarily spent. But once you’ve identified a tendency, do what you can to prepare for it.
Several readers wrote in either to express sympathy for the questioner or to provide some additional thoughts. Some of the feedback I received included excellent points that I want to share with readers, especially the questioner. Those comments follow (with the authors’ permission):
Here’s my two cents which comes from being a partner during the past 19 years as well as the owner of two law firms and getting my battle scars in a third large firm where I was an associate and worked with a number of partners. A partner is bombarded with more work and demands than can be met in the available time. He/she relies on associates knowing a file, knowing what information must be extracted from discovery to put together a winning strategy, and having the ability to put the facts and theory in a single lucid and useful document that a partner can literally pick up the day before the deposition, review quickly and take to the deposition with the necessary documents to ask questions.
For example, if the topic is “knowledge of the contract in question”, the list of subtopics should include: did Mr. Smith see the contract, learn of it by reference in an email, learn of it by reference in a conversation, learn of it by reference in a meeting, learn of it by reference in a purchase order or subsequent communication from the other party, and after each subtopic (of course there would be more subtopics) a short sentence that indicates what the law firm knows about each of these scenarios, such as: “Mr. Smith was cc: on the email from Mr. Jones of 5/1/08 referencing the contract” and attach the email.