Author Topic: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)  (Read 4433 times)

ReadySetMillionaire

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Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« on: December 11, 2016, 08:23:30 AM »
I am going on my third year as a lawyer at a civil litigation firm. Partners here do everything from divorce to foreclosure to employment  to personal injury to basically everything.

As the junior associate, weird assignments from seemingly every area of law have been thrown my way. What I'm finding is that I become so obsessed with figuring out the law that I am missing important factual details--constantly.

I know this also happens in other professions as well. My brother has to teach both science and social studies (and he sucks at science), my friend is an accountant who has done work in a wide variety of areas, my friend who is a civil engineer has had all sorts of projects.

So I know I'm not the only one dealing with having a wide range of assignments, but I seemingly miss small stuff all the time. I've heard the "don't beat yourself up, you're an associate," but I'm entering year 3 next year and I need to limit these types of mistakes. Also, the workers comp attorney is retiring in June, and he likes me, so maybe I'm in a position to inherit his book. His sole client is General Motors and he makes a killing. But if I have a reputation of not paying attention to detail, no chance in hell workers' comp work comes my way.

So, I am really hoping for some advice on here about how to pay attention to detail better. How do you approach new assignments? How do you approach the complexity of new facts and new law (or whatever doctrine you are applying)?

former player

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2016, 08:34:05 AM »
I used to start with the story.  A new file is like a new novel: there's character and plot all intertwined.  Read it as a story: work out who the characters are and what their roles are.  Look for the holes in the plot - people acting out of character, or ignoring facts they should have known, decisions that have consequences.

Then work out where and how the legal issues come into the story, and write the ending.

I used to find that if I couldn't find the ending I was probably looking for the wrong ending.  I'd turn it around and look for the complete opposite ending, and if that fit but wasnt' what I wanted then I'd work backwards from that ending to try to turn it around into the one I did.

Worker's comp should definitely fit this scenario: you've got character, setting and action, it just needs you to weave it all together into a compelling narrative.

GlassStash

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #2 on: December 11, 2016, 10:34:55 AM »
I am an associate working in a similar type of firm. When you say that you are constantly missing important factual details, do you mean that your assigning attorneys aren't providing you with the details or they do and you are overlooking them? I can empathize with being thrown vastly different legal questions, but I find that my intuition leads me to ask operative factual questions when I'm being given the assignment. And if I think of something later, I usually don't have a problem clarying later.

If your research takes you to a place where you need more facts, I don't see an issue with following up with the assigning attorney.

xfactor9600

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2016, 11:18:07 AM »
I am going on my third year as a lawyer at a civil litigation firm. Partners here do everything from divorce to foreclosure to employment  to personal injury to basically everything.

As the junior associate, weird assignments from seemingly every area of law have been thrown my way. What I'm finding is that I become so obsessed with figuring out the law that I am missing important factual details--constantly.

I know this also happens in other professions as well. My brother has to teach both science and social studies (and he sucks at science), my friend is an accountant who has done work in a wide variety of areas, my friend who is a civil engineer has had all sorts of projects.

So I know I'm not the only one dealing with having a wide range of assignments, but I seemingly miss small stuff all the time. I've heard the "don't beat yourself up, you're an associate," but I'm entering year 3 next year and I need to limit these types of mistakes. Also, the workers comp attorney is retiring in June, and he likes me, so maybe I'm in a position to inherit his book. His sole client is General Motors and he makes a killing. But if I have a reputation of not paying attention to detail, no chance in hell workers' comp work comes my way.

So, I am really hoping for some advice on here about how to pay attention to detail better. How do you approach new assignments? How do you approach the complexity of new facts and new law (or whatever doctrine you are applying)?
I've got 14 years in and now a Partner at a family law firm. My career changed when I stopped looking at problems from A to Z only. Identifying A to Z is the easy part. It's remembering to factor in the B to Y. Maybe that will help. I'd also recommend working through a complete case with someone at possible. Experiential learning really helped me.


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Papa bear

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #4 on: December 11, 2016, 11:52:02 AM »
I was an accountant for less than 2 years.  It was terrible.  I hate details.  I went into sales/staffing afterwards.  Best decision ever.  Maybe another industry would work for you as well.


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LeRainDrop

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #5 on: December 11, 2016, 02:31:33 PM »
If given an assignment in a new area of law, or some topic that I haven't really analyzed before, then I like to start my research with treatises and even basic google searches just to get the overview lay of the land and a basic understanding of the elements or what factors may be considered.  Obviously I would never rely on google to finalize my work, but simply to get started in the right direction, without incurring the legal research fees, and once you see the basics, you can hone your research with Lexis or Westlaw searches that are pertinent to your jurisdiction and the particular circumstances of your client's issue.  You can't just assume that your client can satisfy all elements, but must be sure that the facts support it, or that there's a colorable argument that they do.  So, if a Bologna claim requires A, B, and either C or D, then you need to know the facts that weigh on each.  Does my client have B?  Oh, I don't know.  So in my first analysis to the partner, I would say, the law requires A, B, and either C or D; we have A because of facts x, we have C because facts y, but it is unclear whether we have B; factors that might lead to B include l, m, n, o, and p -- do we know anything from the client about these?  It's about following the logical steps of the legal analysis and matching those elements to the facts that are known or what gaps you have in your facts and need to find out.  Also, perhaps a Bologna claim is completely defeated if you have F -- be sure to note this point in your analysis so that if partner or client remembers new facts that create F, they realize that is a game-changer.

I hope that something from what I wrote here is helpful!

emilypsf

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #6 on: December 11, 2016, 08:56:47 PM »
I'm assuming you mean that you don't think to ask the right questions, so miss important facts or discover important facts only after you've spent time researching something assuming that the facts are other than what they are.  Is there anybody else at your level at the firm?  Do you notice a difference between yourself and those at a similar level?  IME, there is a steep learning curve in law, and you waste a lot of time when you start out.  Things started to click for me around year 3-4, and I started asking the right questions the first time and noticing details I previously would have overlooked because my brain was primed to understand what was important.  I was in a specialized field, though, so it might take longer for you.  Unless you're getting negative feedback from partners, I would just concentrate on taking good notes, following up, and owning/fixing all mistakes.

ChpBstrd

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #7 on: December 11, 2016, 10:08:23 PM »
Project Managers and Business Analusts will often develop reusable templates and checklists to ensure all areas of project/business process risk have been addressed, and all unanswered issues identified.

The variety of your current work is making you a jack of all trades, master of none. Ask your boss if this was their plan.

ReadySetMillionaire

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #8 on: December 12, 2016, 09:32:49 AM »
Thanks for all the insight so far.

To answer some questions, it's not necessarily that I'm not asking the right questions.  It's that I'm reviewing files, not really knowing what important details to catch, and then those important details coming back to bite me in the ass.

For instance, I was just given my first workers' comp file that was entirely my own.  I sent out the R-1 (authorization form), scheduled an IME (independent medical exam), and then had to review claimant's records.  Apparently, I missed the importance of what's called a C-30 form, which sets out the conditions which the claimant is seeking to be allowed. Because I missed this, I didn't pay attention to certain records, and my letter to the doctor conducting the IME missed a lot of important facts and records. The reviewing partner then had to spend half a day correcting this error by drafting a supplemental letter to the IME doctor.

These types of things seemingly happen all the time. That partner who reviewed my work really likes me, and we go out for beers almost every Friday, but he recently told me "you really need to start paying attention to detail." Other partners have said this, so I know this is something that's being discussed in shareholder meetings, not just private conversations.

Thus, even though I'm just now going into workers' comp, I'm entering what's apparently a critical year (my third year), and the "Sorry, I didn't know to look for that" doesn't hold much water anymore.

Per the checklist recommendation, I rented an audiobook of the "Checklist Manifesto," and it is very good so far. I might incorporate its ideas into some of my practice.

But as someone else noted, I feel like a jack of all trades, master of none--but apparently that's not a good enough reason not to do an exceptional job. I therefore need to improve my attention to detail in all matters. Hopefully this checklist/form stuff is the right path to go.

onlykelsey

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #9 on: December 12, 2016, 09:40:11 AM »
But as someone else noted, I feel like a jack of all trades, master of none--but apparently that's not a good enough reason not to do an exceptional job. I therefore need to improve my attention to detail in all matters. Hopefully this checklist/form stuff is the right path to go.

I'm a transactional lawyer, and feeling like a jack of all trades and a master of none in my 4th year is what made me move firms and move to a more focused practice area.  It has helped, for sure.

I'm not sure how things progress at your firm, but if there's a possibility to slowly start dropping one or two types of assignments from your workload and specializing a bit, that may be worth considering.

GlassStash

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #10 on: December 12, 2016, 09:53:10 AM »
Baldwin's Ohio Handbook Series has a treatise on Workers' Comp and is available on Westlaw. I find the Handbook Series immeasurably helpful when I'm delving into a new area of law.

LeRainDrop

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #11 on: December 12, 2016, 12:14:10 PM »
But as someone else noted, I feel like a jack of all trades, master of none--but apparently that's not a good enough reason not to do an exceptional job. I therefore need to improve my attention to detail in all matters. Hopefully this checklist/form stuff is the right path to go.

I'm a transactional lawyer, and feeling like a jack of all trades and a master of none in my 4th year is what made me move firms and move to a more focused practice area.  It has helped, for sure.

I'm not sure how things progress at your firm, but if there's a possibility to slowly start dropping one or two types of assignments from your workload and specializing a bit, that may be worth considering.

Yeah, I think it is very typical and expected for a junior associate attorney to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.  But Kelsey is right that as you get to be mid-level, probably around 3rd or 4th year, your firm should be supporting you to develop a somewhat more narrowed focus or niche/specialization.  Yes, as long as you're one of the more junior people, you'll still probably get asked to do some random legal work -- and, frankly, clients will also ask you some random questions now and then -- but being asked by the partners to handle those points should take up less of your time as your career develops.  Nonetheless, it's still smart to have strong substantive knowledge within a couple of different areas so that you have a balanced skill-set as client needs and market trends change over time.

Cpa Cat

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #12 on: December 12, 2016, 12:37:00 PM »
I am a CPA. Previously, when I worked at a firm, there were assistants to help me manage a lot of the nitty-gritty details. Like double checking that an E-file didn't get rejected, or making sure an obscure deadline didn't get missed, they filed the extensions. It was someone else's job to do the payroll, the sales tax, the bookkeeping. I didn't even have to be organized - they just brought me the files to work on and I dropped them off somewhere when I was finished.

When I became self-employed, I suddenly was responsible for everything. All the little details that make a good accounting firm. How do I keep all of this in my head and still have room for tax law?

Checklists are invaluable. I have a monthly checklist with all of my clients listed who have monthly tasks. I have calendar reminders. I keep To-Do lists. I make a habit of reviewing all of the original emails and documentation for complicated situations before sending out my final opinion, to make sure I haven't missed anything (I usually have, thank goodness I review).

But I still routinely encounter issues - for instance, when I do payroll in multiple states, many states have different deadlines, different payment dates, different agencies, extra forms, extra rules, etc. Before I do payroll in a new state, I reminder myself not to assume I know it all. Instead, I Google it like I'm doing payroll for the first time. type in "How to file payroll California" and "payroll tax forms California."

Checklists are absolutely invaluable. When I get a new task, I make a checklist. Sometimes I don't have to revisit them after awhile, because what I'm doing is second nature. But they're especially helpful when you learn a process and then you might not encounter it again until 6 months later.

But you can't win everything. 1040s are second nature to me, and I'd gotten pretty decent with 1040-NRs. But I don't know everything. When income reaches a certain threshold, I'm supposed to attach tax treaty documentation instead of just noting which tax treaty provision I'm using (didn't find that out until a client got an IRS notice, but it was right there in the instructions), international students who are exempt from FICA are supposed to file a certain extra form (I learned that while working for TurboTax, and realized that I hadn't told a client they needed that). These are items that it turned out were easy to Google - I just didn't think to do it.

I've had to train myself to say, "You're not great with details - remember to review everything." "This is a new client situation - do some research to see what special issues face this industry." "You don't do a lot with this state, remember to look out." "You've backed into three different cars in your own driveway. Remember to check behind you when you put the car in reverse. Then double check. And check again. Seriously, stop backing into shit."

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #13 on: December 12, 2016, 12:55:27 PM »
Thanks for all the insight so far.

To answer some questions, it's not necessarily that I'm not asking the right questions.  It's that I'm reviewing files, not really knowing what important details to catch, and then those important details coming back to bite me in the ass.

For instance, I was just given my first workers' comp file that was entirely my own.  I sent out the R-1 (authorization form), scheduled an IME (independent medical exam), and then had to review claimant's records.  Apparently, I missed the importance of what's called a C-30 form, which sets out the conditions which the claimant is seeking to be allowed. Because I missed this, I didn't pay attention to certain records, and my letter to the doctor conducting the IME missed a lot of important facts and records. The reviewing partner then had to spend half a day correcting this error by drafting a supplemental letter to the IME doctor.

These types of things seemingly happen all the time. That partner who reviewed my work really likes me, and we go out for beers almost every Friday, but he recently told me "you really need to start paying attention to detail." Other partners have said this, so I know this is something that's being discussed in shareholder meetings, not just private conversations.

Thus, even though I'm just now going into workers' comp, I'm entering what's apparently a critical year (my third year), and the "Sorry, I didn't know to look for that" doesn't hold much water anymore.

Per the checklist recommendation, I rented an audiobook of the "Checklist Manifesto," and it is very good so far. I might incorporate its ideas into some of my practice.

But as someone else noted, I feel like a jack of all trades, master of none--but apparently that's not a good enough reason not to do an exceptional job. I therefore need to improve my attention to detail in all matters. Hopefully this checklist/form stuff is the right path to go.

I am not a lawyer.

Would it be possible/reasonable to ask a more senior lawyer to check your drafts before they are sent to clients?  Or just to ask "I've drafted The Ninja Report based on Case Law X, Y, and Z.  Accompanying it will be Shuriken Papers, Tabi Papers, and a Sword.  Does that sound right, or am I missing something?"  Or can you ask "This case type is new to me.  Do you know of another case I can use as a starting point?"

Like Cpa Cat, I was very into making my own checklists or instructions for filing certain forms.

Also helpful are setting electronic calendar reminders for even the most stupidly easy to remember things.  I knew I had however many individual clients that are due April 15th...but I had a calendar reminder for that bizarre Maryland personal property tax return that was also due April 15th that my boss never remembered.

You might also keep a list of examples and odd stuff:
  • Well-done workers comp case with all documentation - Jones file year 2008, red binder
  • ABC1234 form completely filled out - Smith file, January 2012, binder on Tom's desk or his shelves
  • WC case where doctor lied but WC claimant didn't know, special paperwork needed - Bingo file, Feb 2005 - Mar 2009, filing cabinet behind water cooler, near middle of the folder

Cpa Cat

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #14 on: December 12, 2016, 01:39:02 PM »
Or can you ask "This case type is new to me.  Do you know of another case I can use as a starting point?"

This is a great idea. Highly recommend.

Linea_Norway

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #15 on: December 12, 2016, 01:58:53 PM »
My DH is an engineer and working in the technical advisor business. In his first job ge was the junior and was uaed in two different fields of expertise, while all his colleagues has specialized into one field. His boss thought it was great having a young and cheap flexible engineer able to do both fields. But my husband felt he was missing out on something. He wasn't able to become really good at either field. He found himself another job, he specialized into one of the fields. Then he became an expert in few years.
I recommend you to do the same thing. Find yourself another job, specializing into one of tour potential fields of expertise. Then you will automatically become better at that field. You will learn the details and what to pay attention to.

BFGirl

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #16 on: December 12, 2016, 02:11:58 PM »
When I first started, the partners would hand me stuff that I had no idea what I needed to do.  I actually got a lot of good information from the legal assistants, especially about all the paperwork that needed to be completed for a particular type of case.  I was bad at doing this until it was crunch time, but I wish that instead of feeling stupid and trying to figure out stuff on my own that I had scheduled an appointment with the partner to make sure I was proceeding down the right path.  If an appointment isn't feasible, maybe send an email stating what you think you are supposed to do and ask if you overlooked anything before you proceed too far working the case.  If I had done these things, I might not have chased so many rabbit trails.

Shade00

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #17 on: December 12, 2016, 02:20:16 PM »
When I first started, the partners would hand me stuff that I had no idea what I needed to do.  I actually got a lot of good information from the legal assistants, especially about all the paperwork that needed to be completed for a particular type of case.  I was bad at doing this until it was crunch time, but I wish that instead of feeling stupid and trying to figure out stuff on my own that I had scheduled an appointment with the partner to make sure I was proceeding down the right path.  If an appointment isn't feasible, maybe send an email stating what you think you are supposed to do and ask if you overlooked anything before you proceed too far working the case.  If I had done these things, I might not have chased so many rabbit trails.

I agree with this. Lean on support staff, especially staff who have been with attorneys for a while. They often know more than you do. Beyond that, I understand the desire to "get it" and to know all the steps in taking a file from start to finish. I'm in my 7th year and I'm still learning. Regardless, it sounds like the OP needs to be having direct conversations with the partners about workflow - you should not be learning the steps in hindsight, or only after you've missed one. Tell the partner that you really want to work on your skills and that you want to become an expert in that area, but you need a super mentor. If you're feeling lost, blame falls on both you and the partner - there needs to be a dialog so you can learn.

FIFoFum

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #18 on: December 12, 2016, 02:38:55 PM »
This sounds less like poor attention to factual detail and more like simply lacking the expertise to know the legal system or law well enough to understand what facts matter and why. I agree that focusing on a subspecialty and getting more input from other people can help with that.

I also wonder if you're simply just not spending enough time with the details or facts. Until you know what's critical and handle case after case, this should be taking you a long time and many read-throughs of the same file. If you review the file once to begin and then maybe once at the end & you're doing what you consider "legal research and analysis" in between, then it seems inevitable you will miss things you didn't know were relevant along the way. Whatever your system of processing work flow is, it's likely you are moving through facts/record too fast for your current skill level. I don't know if it's because you are being given too much to do (like pretty much every associate) or you are looking to more experienced people for pacing. So I would slow down and see if it helps. It may mean working a lot more hours now until you do settle in to one specific area and gain experience in it.


merula

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Re: Attention to Detail at Work (Lawyer -- But All Are Welcome)
« Reply #19 on: December 12, 2016, 02:46:15 PM »
I am not a lawyer BUT I work in insurance, an industry built by lawyers, so I think some things apply.

I was in a similar position as a brand-new underwriter, and again after I moved to a different department. I could pick up a file and read it, but I had no idea what was relevant and what wasn't and what I needed to do with any of the given information.

What really helped was when I was dealing with files that were well-documented the prior year. Someone else did it, I can learn from them and built on any changes that are needed. Obviously, you don't have prior history like that in your files, but especially for WC, there has got to be a similar case floating around.

Then, I built myself checklists. There were existing checklists for my role, but they didn't actually work with my way of doing things, so I started from scratch. Excel spreadsheets with the account name, and then each column had a task. "Review file", "call agent", "send to rating", etc. I'd fill in the cell with either the date the task was done, or "N/A" if it wasn't relevant. As time went on, I'd delete columns or merge tasks as the tasks became more routine and I knew what needed to be done.

Another advantage of insurance is that after a year, I got to review my work in preparation for the next renewal. That was a huge learning opportunity. "I can't believe I made that mistake!" over and over. But at least I know now that it was a mistake, and I can fix it. Can you review your own past files? You'll probably catch some things, which can help you be on the lookout for them going forward.

For things that I need to do at certain dates months in the future, I will block 1/2 hour on my Outlook calendar for that date. Which means that not only do I get a reminder, I also get the time to do it right then.

For general productivity, I've really been loving bullet journaling. I've never been good about keeping up with a journal or diary, and my work notebooks have generally been completely unstructured globs of meeting/phone call notes with To-Do's thrown in the mix. But I've stuck with this one for over 6 months and it's made a HUGE difference.