The scene: You’re a newer attorney eager to prove your chops. You are busy with active cases, but not crazy busy. A senior attorney stops by your office and asks if you have time help out with a project. Do you have time? Although it is an easy enough question, the answer can be surprisingly difficult to figure out. What does it mean to have time to help?
Think Big Picture
When I first started working at my law firm, I would answer the are-you-busy question literally. If I had time to help at that moment, I would volunteer to help. It slowly dawned on me that my literal approach wasn’t working:
Senior partner: Do you have time to work on this new case?
Me: I’m so sorry—I’m in the middle of filing a brief; I am unfortunately swamped for the rest of the day.
Senior partner (looking confused): I’m more asking about your availability over the next 2-3 months.
I realized that depending on the assignment, “are you busy” could mean: (1) do you have time to help with a spot research project?; (2) do you have time to join a new case team?; or (3) do you have time to help with a spot research project that may evolve into you joining our case team? For this reason, my first response now is to gather more information.
Me: I would love to help. Are you looking for a spot research project or for someone to join a case team? What kind of availability are you looking for? What’s the timeline?
Communication is Key
Growing up, my parents used to read to me from Richard Scarry’s books. The story of Little Pig Will (always willing to pitch in) and Little Pig Won’t (never willing to help out) really stuck with me. I now have a debilitating fear of being Little Pig Won’t. To compensate for my Pig Will-tendencies, I try to provide a partner with context regarding my availability. For example:
I’m in the thick of discovery for the Kumquat case, but I have time to help with a spot project this week; or
I’ve got three filings this week, but long-term, I have availability to help with a new case.
My goal is to provide enough information so that the partner and I can figure out if my availability matches the needs and vision for staffing a project or case. Sometimes, however, even if you know that you should not take on another project, there isn’t really a choice. If another colleague has a trial, a TRO, or a sick child, our jobs require stepping up even if we are already busy. (I still don’t want to be Little Pig Won’t if a colleague is desperate for help.)
I Still Get It Wrong
Even with increased communication, litigation is tough to predict, and I get it wrong. I have told a partner that I am heading to trial and probably should not join a new case team, only to have my trial-ready case settle the next week. I have told people that I have time to help out only to have existing seemingly small cases explode into massive, time-consuming pieces of litigation. On one level, you can feel like a failure at reading the Magic 8 ball, but this sort of uncertainty also makes our jobs exciting. It can be thrilling to have a few cases hopping at the same time.
In college, my friends and I used to play a game in which we would sit around in a circle and talk about “what makes us feel most alive” (we were taking The History of Modern Philosophy at the time). My answers rotated between: (1) playing my saxophone with a jazz band that is really cooking; and (2) skiing down a hill that feels just slightly beyond my ability. Having joined the legal profession, I would now add one additional item to my list: having a busy and exciting day at work where you find yourself juggling multiple items, advising various clients, and feeling like you kept all the balls up in the air. It’s during those moments, when I get a strange out of body experience. Looking down on myself, I think “that woman looks like an attorney.” Is she too busy? Almost, but not quite.
(image: Screaming Businessman Hiding Under the Desk from Shutterstock)