Article Bloomberg Law

A Guide for New Attorneys to Decipher Obvious, Vague Advice

New attorneys are constantly receiving advice—a lot of it obvious, bad, or vague. Kirkland & Ellis partner Bobby Earles, in Part 1 of a two-part series, offers pointers on how to actually “do outstanding work” and “be the most organized person on the team.”

You get a bunch of advice early in your career as an attorney. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s not. But there’s one piece of advice you will hear early and often. A senior lawyer will state it to you, with utter conviction, as the key to professional success. And both of you will understand it to be the Absolute Truth.

“Do outstanding work.” 

It’s not bad advice. It would be crazy for a senior partner to encourage a junior associate to write an “average memo,” or to take an “adequate deposition.”

Outstanding work wins cases. It closes deals. It engenders trust. So it makes sense for lawyers to advise each other to, you know, be outstanding. Someone has almost assuredly given you that very advice. Yet, when you were told to do outstanding work, there probably wasn’t more to that advice beyond those very words.

On-the-Job Training?

The partner or in-house counsel advising you did not detail what makes work outstanding. Finding that out, apparently, was your job.

Luckily, you’re a smart person, and you are figuring it out. But without clear instructions, you are learning some expensive lessons in the process.

If you sensed this is the voice of experience talking, you would be correct. At the beginning of my career, I did not understand what was involved in the process of creating consistently outstanding work. Nor did I realize how to put other, similar pieces of advice into action. I was told—as you almost certainly have been—to “get organized,” “show initiative” and “look for better opportunities.” But it literally took years for me to figure out how to do those things.

I’m writing this column with the hope that my years of trial and error in this endeavor—deconstructing relatively useless advice—can save you some time and heartache. As you may have guessed, I have a lot to say about this topic. So much so that I can’t fit it all into one column. Luckily, Bloomberg Law is letting me break it into two parts.

First, we’re going to talk about my two favorite pieces of meaningless advice: “Do outstanding work,” and “Be the most organized person on the team.”

‘Do Outstanding Work’

As a young lawyer, you are told to “do outstanding work” as often as you are told to “have a nice day.” Unfortunately, I haven’t found the Outstanding Work Template online. But I do know that if you take these relatively straightforward steps, you can improve the chances of your work landing in the outstanding pile.

1. Put the Task in Writing. Let’s say you get called into a senior partner’s office and she gives you a task related to a deal that’s about to close. Before you start working on the project, go back to your office and email her. Write something like this: “Senior Partner: I’m about to get started on the project. Just to make sure we’re on the same page, you’d like me to look through the deal documents and find any references to priority of payment. I’m going to put each reference in a chart, and also write down where it’s located in the docs, how much it’s for, and whether it refers back to any kind of exception. The chart can be in either Excel or Word. And you’d like this done by Wednesday COB. Let me know if you have further comments.”

2. Find an Example. Next—again, before you start the project—go into your document management system or shared drive or whatever is used at your place of business, and find an example of the thing you’ve just been asked to do. Even better, find an example that the senior partner created herself. I know this sounds like an obvious step. But it’s one we frequently forget to do.

3. Show it to Someone Else First. Around the same time you start working, call a different attorney—preferably one who has worked for your partner—and ask her to review the project before you submit it. This will involve finishing it before the deadline. That’s going to be tough. And yet, by doing so, the work you hand in will be targeted, accurate, and refined. It will look and feel as though you took great care with it. It will be a really good job. Perhaps even, outstanding. 

‘Be the Most Organized Person on the Team’

There’s a question that strikes fear in the heart of all attorneys, young and old alike: “What’s the status of _?”

Admit it. You hate that question. Often, you don’t know the answer. And not knowing the answer makes you feel bad, because you were advised that to add value you should be the “most organized person on the team.” Luckily though, you can turn this around. You can own that question.

Here’s how.

1. Create a Master List. Make a list or chart of every case or deal you are on. Create space in the chart for different tasks for each case. Also, include spaces for due dates and planned time to work. This is a simple thing to do and you must do it. If you want an example, email me and I’ll send you mine.

2. Take Command of Your Day. Every morning, before you start work, open your Master List. Take five minutes and think about what needs to happen for each of the matters on it. Write them down in the list. Do this even for the matters that are dormant, or where nothing is really pressing.

3. Calendars, Not “To-Do” Lists. Now that you’ve written down all the things that must happen, take another five minutes to block-out time on your calendar to actually do those things. Don’t pressure yourself to finish everything today. It’s OK to work on something for 15 minutes today, tomorrow, and the day after. But even if the tasks aren’t yet complete, you know what’s going on. You know the status.

That’s it for now. I’ll be back to interpret even more meaningless advice, including gems like: “Take the initiative,” “Look for more opportunities,” and “Write clearly and concisely.”

In the meantime, get started. Take these steps. And don’t plan to do them, or file them away somewhere on a “to-do” list. Put them on your calendar. You are worth the time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Bobby Earles is a litigation partner in the Chicago office of Kirkland & Ellis with first chair trial experience. He focuses his practice on complex commercial litigation, internal investigations, and bankruptcy litigation.

Reproduced with permission. Published July 26, 2019. Copyright 2019 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. 800- 372-1033. For further use, please visit