Friday 5: Things Young Lawyers Should Never Say At Work

water cooler talk to avoid
Discover the key differences between a proactive leader and a defeatist worker bee.

water cooler talk to avoidYour performance at work isn’t measured by your work product alone. Clients, supervisors, judges, juries, and others size up lawyers based on a plethora of factors, and what you don’t say at work can be just as important as what you do. Watch out for these five things young lawyers should never say at work.

1. “That’s not my job.”

If a supervisor requests that you do a job outside your job description, you should be thrilled. Yes, even if that job is fetching coffee, picking up the dry cleaning, or (more likely) preparing legal forms that your paralegal could prepare in his sleep. These requests are great for you as an employee for two reasons. First, the supervisor knows you’re capable of the task, and capable of completing it in a timely and competent manner. Second, your supervisor has handed you — on a silver platter — an opportunity to demonstrate your skills in leadership, personnel and task management, delegation, organization, and communication (to name a few). Rather than gripe, embrace the opportunity: Enlist the help of your receptionist, executive assistant, or other appropriate co-worker to handle the coffee and dry cleaning; delegate the initial draft of the legal forms to your paralegal for your review; meanwhile, polish off that brief and have it on your supervisor’s desk before noon.

2. “I’m really busy right now.”

When you say you’re too busy to handle a task, what your supervisor (or worse, your client) effectively hears is, “I can’t/won’t do it.” So the work goes to another lawyer who will do it. Even more damaging is the subtle message, “I am not managing my time in a way that allows me to complete the tasks assigned.” Now, between you and the lawyer who accepted the work, who do you think the supervisor is going to approach with the next opportunity?

Instead of refusing the work outright, consider whether you can accept the opportunity to show your leadership and management skills through delegation and project management, as discussed above. Alternatively, consider rearranging your current project priorities to accept the work and complete it in a timely manner. You can also accept the work while appropriately managing expectations; for example, explain that you’re eager to take on the project and can definitely complete it by Thursday, although you’ll aim to have it by Wednesday, as requested. In this case, even if you do lose the assignment due to your own time constraints, you do so in a way that communicates you are willing and able to handle future projects.

3. “Last night was crazy!”

You were out drinking last night, you’re exhausted, and the slightest whisper threatens to send you to your knees in agonizing, head-pounding pain. Put on a professional face and carry on (maybe donning those sunglasses just a bit more than otherwise necessary), hiding your shame and the effect it could — at least in the eyes of your supervisors — have on your work. In this situation, most people are savvy enough to keep quiet about what a crazy night they had.

But now, let’s confront this same faux pas in a less damning context. Rather than drinking last night, let’s say you were up half the night with your teething six-month-old. Most of your supervisors have kids, and they are familiar with your suffering; for your part, you’re desperate for some reassurance and support, if not sleep. Unlike drinking, caring for a suffering child is not only socially acceptable, but encouraged. So why not open up?

Here’s why: Your life outside of work is none of your employer’s business. And trust me, both you and your employer want it to stay that way. When you bring personal situations to the office that could impact your work, your personal life becomes your employer’s business. Once you open up about the situation at work, you unwittingly plant a small seed of doubt about the quality of your work. Quelling these fears may require further explanation, such as revealing additional information you would have preferred to keep private. You also give your employer reason to question whether your work may have been affected on other occasions. So whether you were dancing the night away or warming formula, do you and your employer a favor and keep your nocturnal activities out of the office.

4. “I don’t know.”

Many people will be surprised to see this one on the list. Shouldn’t we admit when we don’t know something, rather than fudging our way through? There’s a far better solution, though. When a client, supervisor, or judge asks you a question, it’s because she wants to know the answer. By answering with “I don’t know,” you imply that you have no interest in obtaining an answer. Rather than saying you don’t know, explain how you plan to figure it out: “Your Honor, I don’t currently have those cases in front of me, but we’d be happy to provide further briefing on that issue, if you’d like.” “I’ll find out what the statute of limitations is on that claim; I can send you a brief email with the RCW in just a few minutes.” An offer to help goes a long way.

5. I hate that attorney/client/judge.

This is an extremely common trap for attorneys and others in the legal industry. We work within a system that is adversarial by design. In the course of zealous advocacy, we’re bound to find ourselves on both ends of the metaphorical burning bridge. What’s more, nothing builds alliances as quickly and easily as a common enemy. Unfortunately, relationships founded on common enemies are tenuous at best. Once the enemy is no longer a threat, the foundation for the relationship ceases to exist.

When you find yourself in these situations, take the high road. Not only should you refuse to participate in the negativity, but you can demonstrate maturity and leadership by actively defusing it. Demonstrate your understanding of trial strategy by explaining why opposing counsel sent those seemingly over-the-top discovery requests. Or, rather than griping about how wrong a judge is, discuss why the judge’s ruling makes sense, even though he interpreted a precedential authority differently than you would have, and explain how you’ll deal with it on appeal. Don’t bash the common enemy. Take a tip from Sun Tzu and turn these setbacks into opportunities; demonstrate your understanding of the situation in order to overcome it.

In my own experience as both a supervisor and as an employee, these five concepts are the key differences between a proactive leader and a defeatist worker bee. By consciously avoiding the traps outlined above, you change your own mindset and others’ perceptions of you in positive, career-changing ways.

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