Is it OK to fix a typo that you weren’t ask to fix? What about change a paragraph? What about research something you weren’t ask to? What about calling a client? Just when does “showing good initiative” turn into “you did WHAT?!?”.
The problem is that it’s a bit of an impossible question to answer because of the many variables that impact on it, like:
- how senior/junior you are;
- the preferences of your supervising lawyer;
- what kind of area you work in;
- the “thing” in question.
So while I’ll set out a few guidelines below, let’s all just use our brains.
You see, showing good initiative is a great way to demonstrate that you actually care about what you do. But crossing the line is a great way to demonstrate that you have poor decision making skills.
If in Doubt – Ask
Just communicating better (not necessarily more – better) will solve 99% of issues that arise. This goes for both the senior and the junior lawyers.
Senior lawyers, if you’re rubbish at delegating then things going wrong is pretty much your fault. You can’t complain that someone didn’t draft the letter you were expecting if you didn’t actually tell them to draft a letter but just assumed they’d “get it”. Similarly you can’t complain they didn’t check the Mercantile Act 1867 for its statutory right of subrogation because nobody knows that exists unless you tell them (fact check me on that – I dare you).
Junior lawyers, if you are going to go off script and you’re not pretty confident that it’s a good idea, then just ask.
“Hey Chris – in a lot of these cases I’m reading about X – would you like me to check into that more?”
“Hey Chris – clearly nobody taught you how to use apostrophes properly, do you mind if I fix that up for you?”
You get the idea.
Don’t pester – but ask.
Before asking though, bear in mind that not every idea you have is necessarily a good one. So apply a bit of filtering beforehand, or at least do it in the least disruptive way you can (tip – popping in to “ask a quick question” 47 times in a day for one research task isn’t the least disruptive way to do it).
You’ll be as shocked as I was to learn that lawyers aren’t perfect. In fact, sometimes they just stuff things up.
So if you’re reading something like a submission, a pleading, or a draft letter for a senior lawyer and spot an obvious error – fix it.
You can always track it so they can see what you did, in case you’re just wrong. But honestly, could you justify yourself if it later became known that you saw an error and allowed it to slip through the cracks and be sent to the Court because you hadn’t been asked specifically to check for that kind of error?
Now bear in mind that fixing obvious small errors is not the same as rephrasing an entire section because you think it sounded funny.
When doing “I have no idea what we’re looking for” research into a topic, it’s fairly common for the question you were asked initially to be a little vague. The senior lawyer might not be completely sure what they’re looking for, and so they might ask you to look at X, Y and Z to get things started.
While you’ll looking at X, Y and Z you could easily find that A, B, C was more likely to have the gold.
This is one where I think you should ask.
Lawyer might have already looked into A, B and C. You diverting might not be in the budget. And you might just be wrong.
So before you go off and spend hours doing something you weren’t asked to do, it’s best to ask.
Finishing Tasks After Hours
OK I know this one is a bit of a sensitive topic.
But if you are 95% completed on a task you were asked to finish on Monday, and it hits 5:00 Monday afternoon and you dash off out the door to catch the express bus home so you can binge watch re-runs of Seinfeld, then that’s unimpressive.
Finish the work.
This is different from staying back a further 9 hours after work to finish a task in the wee hours of the morning so you can flex about your ability to drink coffee – that’s usually not needed and is uncool for a bunch of reasons.
Again just communicate here. Tell your manager it’s taking longer than expected, see if the next day would be OK. But don’t do it while in motion past their doorway at 4:59pm with your bag slung over your shoulder – that’s a jerk move.
If this is happening habitually though, then either you need to look at your time management, or the person delegating to you needs to get better at it. That’s a topic for another day.
Depending on your area, as a very junior legal practitioner you often won’t have the “day to day” conduct of a file. You’ll probably get discrete tasks at various times with gaps in between.
But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid any form of ownership completely.
Show some interest. Find out what happened, check in to see if anything else is needed, put diary entries in your own calendar for key dates. This in itself is a form of initiative.
I’m not saying you should bug the people running the file 5 times a day for updates. I am saying that it’s good to invest a little emotional labour in the process.
Trust me – we notice who does this and who doesn’t.
OK so we’ve hit the “hmmm probably wouldn’t do this” part.
Here are some areas to stay away from without very clear permission.
- Client contact – don’t unless it’s clear that you can.
- Sending things out to other parties/court/externals – see (1).
- Removing from or adding to a letter/pleading/submission anything other than minor corrections without telling someone that you’ve done it.
- Making marketing calls – while I encourage junior lawyers to engage in marketing activities, unless it’s part of your firm’s mandate for your position I’d be careful about doing this on work time unless everyone knows that’s what you’re doing.
There are probably others but these are the main ones.
Don’t be Anxious
It’s not as hard or complicated as all this makes it sound.
So here’s the short version:
Care about your job, your colleagues and your clients. Do so in a way that doesn’t expose you or your firm to significant risk. Communicate well.