By Jennifer Ilkka
Remember the old adage from grade school: "There is no such thing as a stupid question?" Not true, especially in the context of our legal profession.
To the contrary, I can think of many examples of stupid questions, some of which I myself have posed at one time or another.
Asking such questions, especially to the wrong person, can have adverse consequences at work. It can be difficult to maintain your job, let alone ascend to partnership, if the partners you work for have a less-than-flattering perception of you.
Think of the No. 1 test you are required to pass for promotion to partnership ranks: the sleep-at-night test. No partner will endorse you if you do not inspire confidence.
Asking thoughtful questions of your superiors is perfectly acceptable. But asking foolish questions can annoy them, make them perceive you as lazy or ignorant, or cause them to lose confidence in your abilities. But even the brightest young attorneys will have what other, more experienced practitioners perceive as stupid questions.
In fact, how can young attorneys not? There are few professions other than ours where you spend years of your life and up to six figures in loans to graduate, and literally not know what you are doing when you get a job. If you do not know what you are doing as a young associate, how do you learn on the job without appearing ignorant?
Ponder this hypothetical: you are in the partner's office, talking about your opponent's deficient discovery responses.
The partner instructs you to draft a 201(k) letter. The problem: you have no idea what he is talking about.
Let's first start with what not to do. Do not panic. Almost every associate has experienced this situation. Also, do not ask the partner what a 201(k) letter is, or, even worse, how to draft one. Asking such questions could run the risk of the partner doubting your competency. How do you complete the assignment satisfactorily, while not showcasing your lack of experience? Here are a few tips:
Search firm work product
Conduct a search of your firm's document management system. Many firms will have document management software with full-text search capabilities. Even more basic systems likely have searchable fields, such as the title of the document. Chances are you are not the first person at your firm to have written or responded to a 201(k) letter. An abundance of examples are probably in the system, from which you can glean the source of the rule and the purpose of the letter. More importantly, you will have a plethora of templates you can use as a basis for your own letter. There is no need for you to charge a client a tidy sum to reinvent the wheel.
Next, try consulting the modern day oracle, Google (or another Internet search engine). Even Wikipedia can surprise you with its cache of information involving the legal field. Your search of key terms is sure to yield at least some sites with responsive content that you can quickly skim. Internet search engines are quick and, even better, free. While they do not replace legal research, they can be a great, quick reference guide.
Ask other associates
Fellow associates are another invaluable resource. Consult associates slightly senior to you. They have likely encountered similar issues, but are not so far removed from the first year that they have forgotten what it is like to feel completely clueless. If you have been unable to forge these relationships on your own, take advantage of firm mentoring programs. At my firm, associates are provided with both partner and associate mentors. While both are crucial components of the mentoring process, the junior mentor can provide you with much-needed guidance on practical issues in a comfortable, non-hierarchical atmosphere.
Go back to school
This is more of a proactive measure. It would be incredibly fortuitous if the same day the partner asked you to draft 201(k) correspondence, your firm was offering a CLE course on the discovery process. However, by attending firm-sponsored education classes on a regular basis, you can arm yourself with a tremendous amount of information concerning the everyday practice of law, and decrease your chances of being blindsided in the partner's office. Because first-year attorneys are required to attend a 15-hour course in Illinois that satisfies the requirements of their first CLE reporting period, many opt not to participate in the legal education courses offered by their firm. This is a mistake. Your first year as an attorney is as much about learning your profession (if not more so) than logging your billable hours. Courses my firm has offered during the work day have been a convenient and non-conspicuous way for me to learn on the job from experienced practitioners. Many classes provided me with valuable reference materials that I have referred to later.
There is no question that we learn to be lawyers while on the job. Taking advantage of firm resources and technological advances affords you the opportunity to locate the information you require to complete your duties, without asking the questions that can unfairly raise doubts about your legal acumen.