Take Ownership of Assignments to Have Independent Value

July 10, 2014Articles The Legal Intelligencer
Reprinted with permission from the July 10 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

By now the fireworks have fallen after what was hopefully a very fun and relaxing July 4 celebration. As you look back on the long weekend, reflect on how much time you actually spent considering the significance of the holiday. As someone who lives and works in America's birthplace, it is practically unavoidable for me to contemplate the importance of America's birthday each year. However, this year I wanted to actually apply the lessons from Independence Day to my career.

When our Founding Fathers declared independence in 1776, the United States signaled to the world that it was ready to take charge of its own affairs. Following our success in the Revolutionary War, we did just that, drafting our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The world's first modern democracy was born.

Yet none of this would have been possible without our Founding Fathers' courage to pursue their own ideas. It would have been far easier for them to just sit back and continue under British rule. Instead, the Founding Fathers knew they had something important to give the people of this country—self-governance—and fought for the right to do so. Young lawyers should do the same (sans revolution, of course).

Few young lawyers have their own independent practices. Instead, many begin their careers working for others. In a law firm, this is manifested in the associate-partner dynamic, where partners run cases and associates support the partners. While there are many benefits to this arrangement, such as training and mentorship, being in a supporting role can be stifling unless you independently contribute to the work you are doing.

Young lawyers, at times, tend to act like employees rather than active team members. This is due, in part, to the task-oriented nature of a supporting role. Young lawyers receive assignments with specific parameters, expectations and deadlines, which can lull them into the false belief that their success is measured by their ability to complete such an assignment. Many fail to realize that completing an assignment is just the baseline. You will never achieve and sustain success just doing the minimum.

To succeed in this profession, you need to be a problem-solver and an independent thinker. Being a hard worker and doing an adequate job is simply not enough. In order to achieve long-lasting success, you must push yourself beyond the four corners of an assignment. Take ownership of your work by getting involved in the matter and demonstrate your value by offering independent thought and advice when appropriate.

Think Big

For any assignment, understand how your task-specific work fits into the larger matter. As a litigation associate, I make an effort to get to know the case from the very beginning. When I receive a new assignment, the first thing I do is meet and discuss the case with the assigning attorney, who typically provides me with background information on the case and the issues involved.

For me, this is my first opportunity to take ownership of the assignment. I will ask a lot of questions and think critically about the underlying issues as I get up to speed on the case. This allows me to expand my thinking beyond the parameters of the assignment and, to borrow a sports analogy, keep my eyes downfield and think ahead to how my work will advance the ball. Once I understand how the assignment fits into the larger case, I refine the assignment to create a more useful work product.

Think Critically

As a lawyer, your thinking cap should always be on. Even the most mundane assignments can yield breakthroughs in a case. For example, document review, while monotonous, provides opportunities for this. Young lawyers who do not engage in critical thinking or make the effort to understand the case may just plow through a pile of documents, making the assigned designations for privilege and relevance. However, in doing so, they may miss a critical piece of evidence that could turn a case on its head.

Recently I found myself in just this situation. The evening before a key deposition, opposing counsel dumped thousands of documents on us. Needless to say, we were up late that night, scrambling to review the documents in time for the next day's deposition. Nonetheless, I kept the case, the issues involved and our themes in the forefront of my mind. Because of this, I spotted a series of near home-run documents. These documents actually had little relevance to the upcoming deponent, and, thus, had I just been focused on the assignment of preparing for the next day's deposition, I may have overlooked them. Instead, I immediately raised them with the partner, who quickly informed the client of our findings. These documents led to additional discovery, were the subject of multiple motions and helped advance our theory of the case.

Give Them Something Extra

Early in my career, one of my most cherished mentors provided me with some very practical advice: lagniappe. Unless you are from New Orleans, you may be as confused as I was upon first seeing this word in print. Indeed, when this mentor purported to tell me the secret to being a successful associate, she simply wrote "lagniappe" on a sticky note and passed it to me across her desk. "It means 'a little extra,'" she said.

Too often associates take the employee mentality and focus simply on completing an assignment. Instead, think about what you can add to an assignment. Your two cents can be very valuable to a case, so offer them up. Raise issues or concerns when you find them. In fact, go looking for them. Remember that just because another lawyer (or even a whole team of lawyers) has reviewed something, it does not mean there is nothing new you can point out or find that may have been missed.

Wherever you work, you will advance in your career as a lawyer based on the value you add. Keep in mind that completing an assigned task is the minimum expected effort. In this competitive environment, where job security and opportunities to advance remain at a premium, you need to stand out from the crowd. Taking ownership of your work by understanding the bigger picture, thinking critically and offering a little extra will demonstrate your independent value, which is the foundation of a successful career.

Reprinted with permission from the July 10 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.