Getting Started

When you strut (or slink) into your office on that first day, you should feel comfortable with the knowledge that, in the legal hierarchy, you're about two levels above amoebae. If you've spent a summer or two in the firm, then you're three levels higher.

Your first years in the law are a good opportunity to learn it. Take advantage. Glamorous though the Captain may be, it's more comfy as copilot. Enjoy your training wheels while you've got 'em.

When you first crank up your billing machine, you'll usually be given one of two possible assignments: (1) research, or (2) form-filling. That's pretty much it. Sometimes you may need to pinch-hit (especially in a smaller firm), but that's generally the exception. So what's the answer when Señor Senior walks in with an assignment...and may as well be speaking Sanskrit for your comprehension of the expected task?

The Answer? Four steps: First, take a deep breath. Second, don't panic. Third, go with what you know. Four, start your assignment.

Finished with the deep breath?

OK: Don't Panic. If you do, you're dead. Panic kills the capacity to react. (You may still be dead even if you don't panic, but at least you have a shot.) Thus, when you're handed a project that seems impossible, spend a few minutes to sketch out, on paper, what you think the problem is. (Remember your law school exams?) If you're still lost, and your Senior doesn't shed some light, sua sponte, make a motion to that effect. Go back to your Senior for clarification, or to another Knowledgeable One if the question is innocuous enough and your embarrassment quota has been exceeded. (But be careful not to exchange the well-intentioned but misdirected advice of another for your delegating Senior's instructions.)

Save yourself endless hours in searching for complex answers to simple questions. Instead, ask Seniors, senior Juniors...even Staff (where appropriate). They'll likely have an immediate answer or give you time-saving leads. Don't be a nuisance or give them reason to question your acumen, but do be an equal-opportunity inquirer.

Next: Go with what you know. This is one of the first lessons in flying. If you're on a heading of 270 degrees and get lost, go with what you know. Spending a few minutes to check surroundings or instruments or beacons will usually solve the problem. If it doesn't (or you run into that bogeyman, weather beyond your handling), then...go with what you know. Do most student pilots go with what they know?

Noooo.... They instead wander about the countryside aimlessly, completely destroying the one certainty they originally had: that they were on a heading of 270 degrees from...their starting point. All they need do, in a real pinch, is...turn around. Eventually, they'll end up over familiar territory. Greatly preferable to corn fields and emergency low fuel. (Footnote: There's a saying in flying: The three most useless things to a pilot are altitude above you, runway behind you, and fuel you left behind. In law, don't fight yourself over your inexperience and misspent energies: Get back on track and get on with it.)

Go with what you know.

Take it one step at a time. If you gaze at an entire document at once, you'll be blinded by the enormity of it all, and gasp in terror at the overwhelming task. If, instead, you take it section-by-section, it becomes child's play. (When I started this project -- on a whim -- I wondered whether I'd have enough to fill a pamphlet. Instead, it has been a constant battle to stop myself from digressing more than I have already.

You know more than you think when you first start practicing. After all, unless you went into a van Winklian trance for three years, you do have some idea as to what mens rea , hearsay, and ultra vires mean. More importantly, you know where to start looking.


Research will play a big role in your early work. It's the most Junior-accessible, and is viewed as (and is) a good tool for you to learn -- on someone else's money -- real law.

Think a moment from your client's perspective. He has a legal problem: a zoning-variance appeal, a noisy neighbor, an injury, or whatnot. He doesn't like to pay for attorneys any more than you like to pay for plumbing repairs.

Remember your client, who goes to his lawyer -- your Senior -- who then sums up the alternatives...and promises to take care of the problem. If the question is nebulous enough (or if the client likes reassurance), the Senior will ask for a memo from you. The client may or may not see this memo, but he will see the result: the bill. Every hour you take adds up quickly to a sizable total, which will shock the client, who, in even his less cynical moments, wonders why lawyers (who he thinks already know the law) must pad their bills with unnecessary paperwork.

Remember your client, who doesn't know that lawyers -- especially new ones -- must wade through a morass of endless case law and the swamps of interpretation. The client would not appreciate paying for the (unrequiting) luxury of training you , as you spend half your time racing in the wrong direction, and twice as much time in serpentines when finally pointed correctly. It's a wonder clients are as complacent as they are. (Well, they're not...and they're becoming even less so. The centripetal pressures for law firms to justify their often exorbitant costs coil ever tighter, making your life all the more stressful.)

Remember the client as you bill your fortieth hour for research on whether ex parte motions must be filed on white paper.

Remember too your Senior, who doesn't like to write off your time -- which is his money -- and who likes even less receiving a phone call or letter from an irate client over your portion of the bill.

And now for the tricky part: doing the research. Your Seniors delegate work, which they expect to see completed: (1) quickly, and (2) perfectly. Two rather important modifiers.

Quickly.This will seem impossible to you at first, because you have no idea what you're doing. And in your uncertainty and desperation you go overboard, researching every tangential legal topic within forty miles of the assignment. As you will eventually learn, this is a no-no, and unnecessary. The answer? KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid. Narrow the question. Focus like a laser on the result your Senior would like to see. Some Seniors are really bad about this, in part because they sometimes don't know what they want...and transfer this uncertainty onto you (which is the last thing you need more of). Yet it is you who will be the locus of discomfort when your memo is wildly off-course.

Framing the issue is 49% of the legal research battle. (It's 49% of every legal battle.) When you start to wander, refocus, go back to your Senior, and refocus again.

It may seem embarrassing, but confirm with your Senior, in the narrowest terms, the "Question Presented". They won't hate you for this, and it's a good time to make sure you're not wildly astray.

Confirm your position after you've started your journey. Five minutes here will save hours of wasted -- and expensive -- effort later. Once you're in the jungle, don't stick to a path that leads deeper into the underbrush -- without any hope for a shortcut to civilization.

You've a fine line to walk: You must examine the law -- quickly, completely, and correctly. Yes, there will be false trails, but you must at least inspect them for their falsity. Yet you cannot tarry. And don't get clutched up: You will never be able to research an issue with nary a second wasted. Don't waste your time trying.

Still sitting there with no idea what you're doing?

Draw that deep breath and think your problem through...from the beginning. Carefully. Dispassionately. Legally. Now's not the time to race. I know, sometimes it's pretty hard. After a little practice, though, you'll feel comfortable enough to know where to spend your time; it'll be second nature. For now, try not to be the Junior equivalent of a spastic buffoon.

A Streamlined Briefing Technique , by Clyde Emery, is a good nuts-and-bolts approach to tackling research. (Other practical references are also available.) If you haven't spent much time in law school learning how to really do research (which you likely haven't), find this booklet or one like it...and use it.

In a broader vein, take a look at your assignment. Here's a good opportunity to bring out your Crayons and draw yourself a chart. Figure out who wants what, who represents whom, what needs to happen...and when. (This is important not only initially -- it'll reduce the likelihood of confused thought, later on.) With this chart, you can put some of the pieces together.
(And, after the pieces are together but before the project's about to be forgotten, make a copy for your future reference. Organize your research, and -- being ever the conservationist -- recycle it.)

Perfectly This will also seem impossible to you, don't know what you're doing. The mandate for perfection only feeds the paradox.

How can you give a glorious summation of the law with only a few hours' research? The answer, again, is to narrow the research, and forget the glorious part. You're not there to ask why. You're there to figure out what and how .

Answering broad--much less, philosophical--questions is both impossible and unnecessary. Narrow the question .

If it's interesting, it's probably too broad.

(These two web pages are two sections at the beginning of Chapter 4: Getting the Work Done.)

Would you like to go back to the previous chapter?
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