New Lawyer Tip of the Week – Four Reasons You Should Be Asking Questions (Despite Feeling Like You Have All the Answers)

I am so thrilled to introduce this week’s guest author, Annie Little of JD Nation.  If you are beginning your summer internship or a full time job this fall, you are going to love this post.  Thanks so much, Annie!  Enjoy!

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So you’ve landed your first job with your own office and a law degree in a shiny new frame on the wall.  Finally.  You’re a full-blown attorney.  Yet, you don’t quite feel like one.  And you worry that your superiors and colleagues don’t see you as one, either.  These (or similar) questions may come to mind:

Does my boss expect me to know what I’m doing already?

Will my superiors and colleagues think I’m a dunce if I have to ask them questions?

Are clients going to lose confidence in me if I request clarification?

Let me assure you, that the answer to all three of these questions is a resounding “no”.  Not only will you not be judged for asking questions, but you’ll likely be applauded.  Need convincing?

Here are four reasons you should be asking questions as a new attorney, and how to best go about it:

1. So You Can Nail the Assignment

Whether it’s an assigning partner or a client who is telling you to do something, often they won’t realize they’re omitting pertinent information.  Sometimes they assume you know more about the factual situation than you do, are in too much of a hurry or (as is often the case with clients) don’t realize which facts are relevant to your legal analysis.

So what’s a newbie lawyer to do?

When you’re receiving the assignment, resist the urge to go into zombie associate mode — nodding your head vigorously, confirming you understand and rushing off to start the assignment.

You’ve got the partner’s or client’s full attention — take advantage by repeating back your understanding of the assignment.  Doing this will help you to actually think about the task at hand, take inventory of what information you may be lacking and make sure you’re on the same page as the assigning party.

And I always close out such discussions by asking or confirming when the assignment is due.  It’s amazing how often this crucial point goes unmentioned.

2. Showcase Your Analytical Reasoning

Sometimes, you’ll end up in the middle of an assignment and realize you need additional information.  It happens.  Before going back to the assigning party, make a list of your questions as you keep working. Often, you’ll be able to answer your own questions as you continue with the assignment.  Score!

If you get the sense that you’re spinning your wheels, that’s the time to ask the assigning party or a colleague for assistance.  With your list of well-considered questions in hand, you can address all of your concerns at once rather than with multiple phone calls or trips to someone’s office.

This approach shows that you fully thought through the issues, you aren’t asking stupid questions out of laziness, and the information you need is critical to the successful completion of the assignment.

3. Demonstrate Maturity

This one may seem a bit surprising, but go with me here.  While so many new lawyers hesitate to ask questions out of fear of looking weak or incompetent, the result of raising thoughtful questions is quite the opposite.

Experienced attorneys have no problem asking questions.  After all, that’s how they get all the details necessary to do their job.  By raising useful questions, you will actually be showcasing your insight and competence.  This all translates into being viewed as more of a colleague than a newbie.

Caveat:  Note my use of the words “thoughtful” and “useful”.  You can’t just ask any old question and hope to look legit.  In fact, you could really solidify your status as a (very) junior attorney or worse — you could be seen as a pest.  Yikes.

4. Show You Care

When speaking with clients, asking meaningful follow-up questions sends the message that you care and want to fully understand their problem.  Doing so also helps you to better determine how much time and effort is needed to resolve the client’s issue, which allows you to manage their expectations.

Insider tip:  Don’t go into interrogation mode.  Your role is to help clients open up about their problems, not make them feel defensive or nervous.

When you’re asking questions of your assigning attorney, smart questions show that you care about getting the assignment done quickly and accurately.  You’re demonstrating that although you could spend an unknown amount of time continuing to struggle with the assignment, you thought to tap into their wealth of knowledge in the interest of saving time (you know, in a non-brown-nosing way).  Ultimately, this translates into providing fast, quality service for the client, which is a winning scenario for everyone.

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Getting over your newbie fears can be daunting.  Take comfort in knowing that we’ve all been there.  But now you’ve got some strategies for how to ask the right kinds of questions at the right times.  Not only that, but you’re also armed with the knowledge that asking questions is a necessary part of being an attorney.  The sooner you master this skill, the sooner you’ll feel like a “real” lawyer.  

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Annie Little is the founder of JD Nation, which provides coaching services and free resources for bored, blocked or burned out lawyers and law students.  Annie draws upon her seven years in legal practice and life coach training to help current, former and aspiring attorneys create the fulfilling lives and careers they deserve.

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