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Practice Pointers - Managing Expectations

Have you ever had that nightmare where you forgot about a deadline or had two things due at the same time and only managed to finish one? And then you woke up panicked, drenched in sweat, right before the climactic scene in which a partner hurls a series of expletives (and maybe even a stapler) at you?

No? Not yet? Well, let’s be sure to keep it that way.

One thing they don’t teach you in law school is how to manage expectations when you’re in the real world. That’s more of a “learn as you go and figure it out” thing for most.

In an effort to prevent any future, panicky deadline-related nightmares (*shudder*), this post will cover some of the lessons I’ve learned about managing expectations when practicing law. But first, let’s get a lay of the land. Whose expectations need managing?

  1. Your supervisor(s)
  2. Any core support staff you work with (assistants, paralegals, interns)
  3. Any other team members (e.g., other attorneys at your level, co-counsel)
  4. Your clients
  5. Your own

And what expectations are we talking about?

  1. Your availability
  2. Deliverables/work product (method and delivery date)
  3. Progress check-ins (frequency)
  4. Feedback (if, how, and when it will be given)
  5. Problem-solving

How you manage expectations will depend on whose expectations they are and what those expectations are. Let’s walk through the categories above and how to go about managing each category of expectations for the various people you’ll be working with.

Availability

Availability includes capacity to take on new work and general availability (being on-call). With respect to capacity, you might feel obligated as a new attorney to take on all new work that comes your way. Although it may seem like a good idea to be eager and readily available, you run the risk of getting overwhelmed and overextended when you take on too much, which means the quality of your work could suffer or (gasp!) you miss a deadline.

If you’re unsure as to whether you have capacity to take on more work, let your supervisor know what you’re currently working on and ask how much time they’d anticipate this new task/project will take. I guarantee they’d rather you get their input and be upfront about your availability than find yourself with conflicting deadlines.

As mentioned earlier, availability also refers to your general availability. For instance, at what time will you stop checking emails for the day? And how quickly will you respond to emails – as soon as you get a notification? Within a half hour or hour? These are questions you don’t necessarily need to have a conversation with anyone other than yourself about, but you’d be well served to set expectations early by your actions. You can “condition” your team to expect you to respond to emails within an hour instead of within five minutes. And you can “condition” your team to expect you to answer emails between 7 am and 11 pm but no earlier and no later.

Deliverables/Work Product

Make sure you’re very clear on what exactly the requested deliverable/work product should look like (e.g., 4-page research memo versus email with list of favorable and distinguishable case law?) and when it is due by. Also be sure that you know who is responsible for what part of the deliverable if several team members will be working on it.

Progress Check-Ins

Ask your supervisor(s) how often they’d like you to check in on progress. And relatedly, let any core support staff or other team members know how often you’d like to hear from them about a given assignment. Only when there’s an issue? Once a week? Also take care to check in with yourself on the progress on an ongoing assignment, particularly when you get asked to take on new work.

Feedback

Ah, feedback. My millennial self craves it, and sadly, it can be so elusive. That’s why I recommend intentionally asking for and giving it. If your supervisor isn’t the type to provide feedback on an assignment after its completion, try asking for it directly. A quick “is there anything I could do more effectively next time” question might do the trick. If not, seek out feedback by putting your detective hat on and searching for clues. E.g., What edits to your memo or brief did your supervisor make? Take note of those so you can refer back to them when working on your next assignment.

As for giving feedback, I’m a big fan of giving praise where praise is due. Not only does it motivate your team and build morale, it confirms that whatever the person did was done well. On the flip side, if something wasn’t done right and needs correcting, don’t be afraid to tell your team member that. Do so with kindness and with an eye towards teaching. Help them help you by explaining what should be done the next time around.

Problem-Solving

Spoiler alert – mistakes will happen. (And that reality is one of the reasons I like the phrase “practicing law.” You learn and improve the more you do it.)

The question is what you’ll do when an issue arises. Who will you go to? How will you address it? For instance, if you’re unsure about how to handle something, is your supervisor open to your coming directly to them and asking for clarification? (I hope so!) Or would they rather you run the question by a senior associate or other person who could be considered a secondary supervisor?

Problem-solving is a bit tougher to set expectations around because the last thing you want to convey is that a problem would even come up in the first place. But it’s important to know who can go to for guidance if need be. And if you’re really unsure or nervous about addressing something with a supervisor, I hope you have a mentor or peer you can turn to for help.

Like the other expectations discussed above, it all comes down to communication. That’s what managing expectations is all about – communicating openly and effectively. And in a new normal of virtual meetings and lawyering from home, communication is more critical now than ever before.

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