When you are beginning your journey as a new lawyer, many things may seem overwhelming. The amount of information you have to manage and the variety of work you need to handle and organize at one time will quickly leave you focused on nothing more than the task at hand. Although keeping laser vision on your work product is imperative to performing well, you should always strive to be aware of the bigger picture along the way. Remember in law school when some of your peers would spend what seemed like an eternity in the library throughout the semester, only to do quite poorly come exam time? Yet, at the same time, there were those law students that managed to do great by studying only around finals time? This has always been the classic example of working hard, but not working smart. The principle applies to anything, but it is particularly simple to measure in the academic context. Although it is not as directly observable in the workplace, the workplace does not change the need to be efficient. On the contrary, it becomes even more important because efficiency is not only beneficial to your employer, but to your own growth as a lawyer. After all, career development should be your most important objective when you are just starting out. Why not ensure you conduct yourself in a way that maximizes your career prospects? The bigger picture is relevant with respect to two components of practice: assignments and general legal knowledge.
Whenever you receive an assignment as a junior associate, especially at bigger law firms, you tend to only receive one small component of a much larger transaction or case. You will most likely only know what you are required to do on your particular assignment, and will not understand how this assignment relates to the rest of the parts your coworkers are handling alongside of you. This is where it becomes very easy to develop tunnel vision and work only within the context of what your assignment entails. This is not the optimal way to proceed. If possible, you should do your best to learn about the bigger picture. This means you should strive to learn about the entire case or transaction and understand where your role fits in the grand scheme of things. This way, you are not only learning more information that builds experience going forward, but you are operating with a world map view that helps lay the groundwork for what exactly you need to accomplish with your assignment. This makes understanding the bigger picture doubly beneficial.
Many junior associates do not ask the partner or senior associate about the details of the overall deal or case when receiving an assignment and simply get to working on what they are required to get done. There is nothing wrong with this, it is just not efficient and does not help you in the same way as knowing where you fit into the puzzle. It is always easier to handle something when you understand which step of the process you belong to in the framework. For example, if a partner asks you to draft the first version of a contract, you should be asking what is the client’s overall goal, and what other documents your coworkers are handling that are in any way related to this matter. If you’ve never seen such a transaction, ask if there are any materials you can look over to get a better grasp on these types of transactions, especially their significant elements. On the flip side, in litigation when you are drafting a summary judgment motion, ask what has been filed already and where this litigation is likely headed. If you are researching a specific issue, ask what other issues coworkers are researching and how this all comes together to build the client’s case.
Although not directly related, something to always keep in mind is the party on the other side of the transaction or case. Put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what you would be doing to fight your client over important deal points or legal standards. This will improve your arguments because what is most important is identifying your side’s strengths and weaknesses, and closing the gap on those weaknesses when the opposing side mentions them. It is easier to do this when you are imagining yourself sitting on the other side of the table, trying to poke holes in your own reasoning. At some point, this should become second nature (if it already isn’t).
General Legal Knowledge
When you begin working in a particular field or two of law, you quickly begin to specialize. There is nothing wrong with specialization, as you become an expert in those areas of law. However, you should always be striving to gain a general working knowledge of any other practice areas that relate to your area of expertise. As a junior associate, it is easy to develop tunnel vision by working on similar matters over and over. Do not make the mistake of knowing nothing more than what you are handling day to day. Not only does this make you much less marketable going forward, but perhaps more importantly, you will always have to rely on the “specialists” in the other areas of law to handle “their law” when that issue is raised during a negotiation or client meeting. There is a reason lawyers are often specialists, and when the issue truly is complex, there is no reason not to consult a coworker when practice area-specific issue is raised, but do you really want to consult each and every time someone yells “tax!” when you are negotiating a deal closing? If you have a working knowledge of the various tax issues that often pop up in your practice area, you should know those tax issues and be familiar enough with them to become a stronger negotiator when it really matters. You lose a bit of that strength each time you have to pause to refer a matter to one of your coworkers, at least when a working knowledge of the issues would have been sufficient to let you handle it in the moment.
This is not about trying to stretch yourself too thin. The key here is to come to understand the basic and often-encountered parts of practice areas that relate to the work you handle in your own practice areas. This makes you a better lawyer. You do not have to be expertly-versed in these subject matters, but taking a proactive approach and learning the parts of them that will repeat themselves again going forward will make you more efficient. You should always be striving towards learning and gaining experience, and part of that striving should include learning the ropes of any area of law that may come across your particular area of growing expertise. Do not be the lawyer that is never curious about what the intellectual property coworker does when an issue comes up, or the securities lawyer does when an issue comes up. Be the lawyer that is curious to learn these things and enhance his or her own experience, knowledge, and expertise. Leave the complex matters for the experts, but try to have a grasp of enough of the basics to avoid calling a coworker anytime tax is mentioned, for example. This is all part of your own career development. It is no different than having a problem with something, calling someone to help the first time, and asking them to explain how they fixed the problem instead of simply saying thank you and calling it a day. The more you know, within limits, the better you will be at your craft. That is efficiency.