By Grover E. Cleveland • December 02, 2016•Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
Q: Everyone says that new lawyers should ask questions without worrying about being judged. But I know of lawyers who have gotten negative reactions to questions. What’s your advice about when to ask questions and when to keep quiet?
A: New lawyers need to ask questions to learn. But as you recognize, there are exceptions to every rule. There are, in fact, questions to avoid.
As with everything in law, you need to be strategic. Some lawyers recommend asking only "sensible" questions. But that doesn't provide much guidance. You should consider what to ask and who to ask – as well as how and when to ask.
Here are some tips:
1. What to ask. One reason lawyers want you to ask questions is to help prevent one of their most common fears. The concern is that new lawyers will spend hours and hours researching the wrong thing, won’t come up with a useful answer, will blow the deadline, cause an embarrassing situation with the client, and create a pile of time that the senior lawyer has to write off. All this keeps partners awake at night. There are variations on this scenario, but senior lawyers want to ensure that junior lawyers do not spin their wheels and log time that does not provide value to the client. With this in mind, the types of questions you should ask involve making sure you understand the assignment, making sure you understand the applicable law, and seeking direction if you may be off track. Substantive questions that will help you do your work are important to ask.
2. What not to ask. At least at first, err on the side of asking questions, particularly when asking questions will save time. But avoid asking questions that could be perceived as asking others to do your job. For example, if your role is to ensure that all the facts and citations are accurate, you should usually check those things yourself. Senior lawyers generally don't appreciate when junior lawyers delegate up. Those lawyers have their own roles on the project. But there may be times when a more senior lawyer has readily available information that would take you more time to track down. In those situations, first try to find the information. If you don’t find it right away, ask yourself what is in the best interest of the client? In other words, will asking the other person save the client money – even though the other person may have a higher billing rate? You should also consider whether asking the question will make things easier or more difficult for the senior lawyers on the team. If asking a question may cause a significant disruption in another lawyer’s work, try to come up with a better way to get the information.
3. When to ask. Try to be conscious of when you ask questions. The more questions you can ask at the outset, the better. Early questions will get you started on the right track. You are also likely to have more access to the senior lawyer when you first receive an assignment. As an impending deadline looms, stress soars all around. Under stress, your questions may become less thoughtful at the very time others become less receptive.
4. Who to ask. Some new lawyers fear that they may not get good guidance if they don’t go straight to the top. But it is wise to be discerning about knocking on a partner’s door. Partners are busy and their time is expensive. If someone who is not a timekeeper can provide the information, that is often the best place to start. It’s less expensive for the client and limits lawyer interruptions. Partners usually won’t want to answer questions such as, “What is the client’s phone number?” or “What are the page limits?” or “Is this citation form correct?” Senior associates should also be able to help you understand if you are generally on track with the assignment. A rule of thumb is that the higher you go, the more critical your question needs to be. For example, questions relating to client objectives or whether your work will be useful may be appropriate for a partner or other senior lawyer. But also be mindful of the hierarchy. If you are supposed to direct questions to a particular lawyer and you head first to someone higher, ruffled feathers may result.
5. How to ask. Finally, make sure you organize your thoughts so you can ask precise, logical questions. Take time to distill what you need from the other person. Disorganized, inane or illogical questions won’t instill confidence. And the other lawyer needs to know that you respect her time. For some questions, you may want to suggest that the answer could be directing you an appropriate resource. That can help allay fears that you are trying to delegate up.
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Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.