Problem solving

For today's Monday Mailbag, LegalJob addresses the following question from a big firm junior associate:  

I was given a research assignment by a partner who I am told is difficult to work for and is known to be very demanding.  Can LegalJob suggest best practices to help ensure smooth sailing?

LegalJob has provided several posts on meeting partner expectations.  Check those out and consider the following:

Ask lots of questions (if you have them.)

  • You want to get a sense of the partner's preferences as far as form of response, timing, communication with him/her if additional clarification is needed, etc.
  • Make sure you understand what is being asked of you.  Better to ask questions at the front end then waiting and wasting time and guessing (wrong).

Paint a broad brush

  • You can decide how much information to provide in your response (and less with the option of more if desired is generally the way to go) but in the meantime, dig deep and wide with your research.  Get the lay of the land in the area, including history to help provide you some context.  You do not know what will be important until you dig in.  Become "an expert" in the area as best you can (but note that it really is not possible to be an expert after one or two research projects).

Develop a framework through which to analyze the legal issue.

  • Like in law school the reasoning may be more valuable to the partner than your answer
  • Identify the problem, the moving parts, and articulate how others have analyzed this issue (or one closely related by analogy if there is nothing out there)
  • Be rigorous.  Find as many authorities as possible on both sides (cases, legislative history, treatises, law review articles -- scorch the earth)

Be sensitive to how you deliver your "answer".

  • Stay away from absolutes and couch your answer in terms of "it seems" or "it is likely that"
  • You are not an expert in the area even if you have spent two days or a week getting to the bottom of the issue.
    • The partner expects you to know everything there is to know but without years of experience that is not likely possible.  Many lawyers who have practiced in a certain area for many years are always quick to point out that they are not experts in a particular facet of the law that they have had very little experience with (even though they likely have enough experience to identify the relevant considerations on both sides).
    • Since you are not an expert, your answer (if requested) should include reference to the authorities you are relying on (and why they are persuasive) and should provide information on another possible way of looking at the problem (if there is one) and authorities supporting that approach (even if you have determined that way is incorrect).
    • Do not dismiss counter arguments out of hand even if they seem silly.  Instead, explain how they are inconsistent with various authorities in the area.
    • A well thought out response set up pins (all possible arguments) and knocks them down (with supporting authority and not your general opinion about what the answer should be).

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at