Article Bloomberg Law

INSIGHT: Taking Action on Senior Attorneys’ Often Vague Advice

Kirkland & Ellis partner Bobby Earles, in Part 2 of a two-part series, breaks down how to interpret often well-intentioned, but typically unspecific, guidance offered by senior attorneys to new associates, like: “Take the initiative.”

There’s no substitute for good advice. Unfortunately, a lot of the advice given to junior attorneys isn’t all that good. It’s not specific. It’s not actionable.

And the junior lawyers who receive it don’t have a clear way to put it into practice.

In this column, written as a two-part series, we review and deconstruct senior attorneys’ often vague advice, and turn it into actionable steps.

In Part One, we examined the relatively banal instructions of “doing outstanding work” and “being the most organized person on the team.” In Part Two, we dig into three more pieces of well-intentioned, but largely meaningless guidance: “Take the initiative,” “Look for more opportunities” and “Write clearly and concisely.”

‘Take the Initiative’

One tough thing about being a junior lawyer is that you often don’t really know what’s going on in your cases. You are assigned work. You do it. You turn it in. You get another assignment. Rinse, repeat.

Often, no one takes the time to explain why this work is being done and where things are actually headed. Yet, you are also advised to “take the initiative.” And you probably would, if you just knew which initiatives were worth taking.

I am confident there are things you can do, regardless of your practice area, that demonstrate your willingness to take action.

1. Find Some Odd Hours. For most of your career, you’re going to have to spend business hours completing tasks, i.e., doing the work that needs to be done. That’s valuable stuff. But it’s not really initiative. It’s just work.

Showing initiative, in my experience, involves:

  • thinking about what else needs to happen,
  • making a plan for doing those things, and
  • delivering on that plan without delaying your other work.

To make those things happen, you need to set aside some time during the week to think about your cases. Not just to work on them. This will normally need to happen outside business hours.

2. The Cast of Characters. In almost every legal matter, a few things should definitely get done, but lawyers largely forget about them, or remember, but never get around to doing them.

For example, every lawsuit should have a cast of characters. It’s just what you think it is: a list of all the people involved in the litigation, and a description of their roles. If, on one of my matters, an associate knocked on my door and said, “Hey, I saw that we didn’t have a cast of characters, so I created one,” I would be overjoyed.

Be that associate. Create the cast of characters, or whatever it is that always needs to happen on your matters.

3. Make a Chart. Legal work generates a ton of stuff. Millions of documents, memos, emails, letters, etc. Think about the matters you’re on right now. There’s almost certainly a pile of documents that someone should review, sort, and put into a chart or table. That someone is you.

Make the chart. Send it around to your team. It will shine with initiative.

‘Look for More Opportunities’

This performance review might sound familiar: “Vanessa is a great associate. She should continue to seek out more opportunities for substantive roles in her matters.” Notice, the review doesn’t say, “I’m planning to give Vanessa more opportunities.” Nope. It’s Vanessa’s job to find them herself.

Here are some ways Vanessa, and you, can do just that.

1. Better to be Deep than Broad. The smaller the number of cases or deals that you’re on, the deeper you can dig into them. The deeper you’re dug in, the more you can learn. That puts you in position to become an authority. And when you’re the authority, you get to do things. You get opportunities.

2. Make Partners Feel Special. Every client wants to be treated like they are their lawyer’s only client. Similarly, every partner wants to be treated like she is her associates’ only partner. So do that. Call the partner you work for before she leaves for her deposition and ask if there’s anything she’d like to have sent to her hotel. Email your general counsel a list of conferences in her industry and ask if she’d like you to look into them.

These small things give her the impression that you are paying attention to her career. It motivates her to reciprocate and find opportunities for you. 

‘Write Clearly and Concisely’

Senior lawyers regularly advise you to write clearly and concisely. But often, the legal writing that floats around your workplace is anything but. You will be tempted to emulate the robotic, repetitive, and soulless writing you’re exposed to. Don’t do it. Write in your own voice. Write like a real person.

Here’s how.

1. Use Active Voice. Not, “The use of active voice is encouraged.” This is easy to practice. Write something, and when you’re finished, take a couple minutes to read it out loud. Eliminate any instances of passive voice that aren’t absolutely necessary. I did that after I wrote this column. Not, “That was done after this column was written.”

2. Use Short Sentences. I love short sentences. They’re easy to read. Use them. Try to avoid long sentences. Why? Because long sentences are terrible.

3. Write Like You Speak. Use “above” instead of “supra.” If a group of items is best described as “stuff,” call it “stuff.” Also, “can’t” really does mean the same thing as “cannot.” It’s OK for you to write “can’t.” The sky will not fall.

You’ve gotten enough advice. And you’ve probably spent plenty of time in your career—and really, your life—being outstanding, organized, and showing initiative. That’s how you got this job in the first place. So put these tools into action. You’re going to be great.

Outstanding, even.

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 August 15, 2019. Copyright 2019 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. 800- 372-1033. For further use, please visit