Every young lawyer has faced this, or will soon face it.
You have a file. Before leaving for some activity or another, your boss gives you a task. Perhaps it’s “call the client and explain X to them”. Sometimes it might be “send that letter out”.
Whatever it is, at the time the task probably seems innocuous. Then they go. They tell you they are out of contact, or don’t want to be called. Perhaps they are in a meeting, in Court, or somewhere you won’t be able to reach them.
And then it all goes wrong… the client is upset; The other party threatens to do nasty things, or calls you mean names. Something that was supposed to be dealt with falls off the rails. The options are pretty much endless.
What do you do Next?
Panic generally ensues. You freak out, aren’t sure what to do, who to call, whether to call, what to say, or how to respond.
So the first thing you need to do is this: take a breath. Maybe two.
Allow your rational brain to kick back into gear, and balance out the raging emotional response that is coursing through your body.
Of course, emotions aren’t always bad – but right at this point, they are not going to do you any favours in your decision making.
Once you’ve done that, there are a pretty simple set of steps you can do to keep things under control or potentially get them back on track.
Step 1 – Determine if it can Wait
Our initial reaction is generally to try and respond, fix or deal with something instantly.
Sometimes that’s because our client is demanding it, sometimes it is because we feel like it’s urgent.
But really the first question you have to ask is this: does this issue really need dealing with now, or can it wait until my boss gets back.
Generally speaking, most bosses will want to weigh into problems (if only to say “you handle it”) so, if possible, waiting is frequently a better option.
After many years, my view is that almost everything can wait. Sometimes it takes a little effort to explain that to a client, but it can be done. If there is no ACTUAL URGENCY then waiting will offer many benefits that responding immediately won’t.
If you can wait – then none of the rest of the steps are needed.
Step 2 – Can you Deal with It?
If it can’t wait, then you need to figure out if you can deal with it yourself.
Really here there are two questions:
- Can you deal with it;
- Should you deal with it.
Only proceed to deal with it if the answer to both is yes. This will depend on your knowledge of the issues, your confidence with this particular client (if it is a client issue), and generally your experience in the area in question.
Don’t underestimate yourself here – most frequently young lawyers will err on the side of not dealing with it, which is definitely the safe path. Frequently, however, those same young lawyers are more than capable of dealing with it, lacking only the confidence to tell themselves that.
That said, sometimes there will simply be limits on your authority to do some things, so you might not have much of a choice.
But if you can deal with it – then deal with it.
Step 3 – Does it Need your Boss, or Can Somebody Else Do it?
Unless you work in a very small firm, the next question is whether your boss really needs to weigh in.
If you have trusted senior members of your group who can deal with problems like the one you face, then possibly the better and faster option is just to have them deal with it (or help you to).
Judging this really depends on how well you know your boss and your team. Some bosses will want to micro-manage the situation and be annoyed if you try deal with it without them, but others will appreciate not being bothered and the issue being dealt with.
Step 4 – Make the Call
If necessary, try to call your boss.
They might not pick up.
The might tell you to just deal with it.
They might tell you it can wait.
They might tell you to “get X to handle it”.
Either way, after the call you will have the same degree of guidance you probably would have gotten with your boss in the office, albeit likely less detailed.
Step 5 – Deal with It
You’ve determined it can’t wait, but that you’re not the person to handle it. You’ve tried other people and they can’t help, and you’ve tried to call your boss.
None of it has worked.
Guess what? You’ve got to deal with it now.
Yes – you might stuff it up. Yes – your boss might be annoyed.
But you know that you’ve done everything to try and avoid the situation, and left in the lurch you simply have to do the best job you can.
Take comfort from this, however – from what I’ve seen, most young lawyers can step up to the plate pretty well when they are forced to. Generally the only reasons they don’t are:
- they are worried their boss will criticize them; or
- they lack confidence dealing with clients or other parties.
Those choices have been taken away from you if you’ve followed the above steps, so congratulations – the buck now stops with you for a bit.
Make the best decision you can, use what wisdom you have, remain calm and deal with the issue.