For new(ish) associates: Speak up!

Dan Hull, of What About Clients? blog fame, posted a key question that associates (really, all lawyers) must be able to answer at a moment’s notice: What are you thinking? As Dan put it, “If a neuron fires in a brilliant young lawyer’s head, and no one hears it go off, did it even happen?” Dan writes to encourage more senior lawyers to ask junior associates what they’re thinking and to teach those lawyers to volunteer their thoughts, and I couldn’t agree more.

But new(ish) lawyers are often uncomfortable volunteering their ideas, feeling that because they’re new and have a lot to learn about practice, it’s better (as Abraham Lincoln advised) to “remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” This fallacious belief is what Mark Herrmann, author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, refers to as the “potted plant” mistake. That “wisdom” backfires in the law firm setting, though. A new lawyer must add value immediately, and sharing questions or insights is the quickest way to do that. (It goes without saying that these insights must be well-considered, right?)

What I like about Dan’s advice is that the simple question, “What are you thinking?” creates an atmosphere of collegial inquiry. It not only allows more senior lawyers to get an insight into a newer lawyer’s thinking process, whether to reap the benefit of brilliance or to dispel a mistaken assumption before it causes harm, but also it open the opportunity for the newer lawyer to learn how the more senior attorneys are analyzing the issue at hand, sifting the important from the irrelevant, and cooking up an approach most likely to meet the client’s goals.

So, new(ish) lawyers, volunteer your thoughts, and ask what others working on your cases are thinking. (Don’t forget to ask paralegals and secretaries, too. You might be surprised at the insight that these people can have, and it’s a painless way to remind yourself that non-attorney legal professionals can make a variety of valuable contributions if provided the opportunity.)


A quick word of thanks to those who took part in February’s Success Strategy session offering. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with so many people with exciting goals and to help flesh those out. The feedback was terrific, and I’ve almost filled my client roster. I do, however, have a few open spaces left before I’ll open a waiting list. If you’ve been on the fence about investigating coaching, please contact me now. I offer a limited number of free consultations each month, and I’d be delighted to talk with you.

Julie Fleming Brown coaches attorneys on professional development, career management, and client development issues. Please visit for more information, or contact Julie at 800.758.6214.

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3 Comments on “For new(ish) associates: Speak up!”

  1. peter vajda Says:

    For me, Julie, what you point to is “engagement”, the experience of an employee who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work. Folks who are “engaged” proacively care about the future of their organization and are most often willing to invest, over and above, to ensure their organization’s success.

    Asking, “What are you thinking” communicates that “engagement” is important, valued and encouraged by more senior folks.

    In addition, what can senior lawyers do to melt the self-image many new-ish folks have that they must be silent, stay in the background and not “show up”? And, frankly, do senior folks perpetuate this newby self-image. If so, one might ask senior folks, in this regard, “What are YOU thinking?”

  2. Peter, I love the word “engagement.” In fact, that’s a theme that I’ve been playing around with for some time now… I predict a post on this topic coming soon!

    Good question about the senior lawyers. In my experience, they both encourage AND discourage junior associates’ attempts to speak up. It varies widely, of course, but I’ve seen lots of lawyers who are “too busy” to listen to the more junior people. I agree that they should be asked what they’re thinking!

    Thanks, as always, for your thought-provoking comment.

  3. […] Vajda recently commented on “engagement,” which he went on to describe as “the experience of an employee […]

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