The Hippocratic oath in medicine begins with the admonition “first, do no harm.” This simple directive, that the practitioner should ensure, as an essential part of professional service, that the service recipient is not harmed (intentionally or unintentionally) by any actions of the practitioner, fully applies to the practice of law. Lawyers, even the most junior, must recognize that their action (or inaction) can have serious consequences for a client.

Junior lawyers, however, often overlook the potential consequences of their behavior, assuming that someone else more senior will take care to instruct them, and prevent them from causing problems in a matter. That is not always so. Indeed, even where a supervising lawyer discovers a problem, in some cases the damage is already done. At the very least, even if the problem can be solved, relations with the client (and your relationship with the more senior lawyer) may suffer.

This article catalogues some of the most common ways that a junior lawyer can mess up a matter, and offers some basic cures for each potential problem.


Junior lawyers may receive assignments in areas where they have little prior experience. Worse, a supervising lawyer, in a hurry to move to the next task, may give vague or incomplete instructions. Junior lawyers may, as a result, waste time, causing additional expense to the client (which may have to be written off), missed deadlines and dislocation to the work of others.

The Cure: Ask lots of questions when receiving an assignment. Ask more later, if you are still not sure of the assignment. “Check in” regularly with the supervising lawyer, to report your progress and identify any problems. Solicit advice from your colleagues who may have handled similar assignments in the past. Formulate a work plan and confirm (with your supervisor) the steps you intend to take before doing any large chunk of work.


Ultimately, virtually every resource at a law firm costs money, and is potentially billable to a client (or part of the overhead costs of the firm). Every substantial use of resources (photocopy services, on-line paid electronic research, paralegal time, car services, and on and on) should be approved by appropriate authorities within the firm (and, in some instances, by the client itself). Lack of approval may mean that the client (more often, the firm) pays an unnecessary expense.

The Cure: Learn the firm’s expense authorization system, and follow it. When in doubt, ask for directions. Set a threshold limit, as a reminder to yourself, so that (even if you have authority to incur the expense) you’re sure that the supervising lawyer and client are aware of any significant expenses.


As a lawyer at a law firm, you may be deemed to have authority to bind a client to agreements, at least with regard to the matters on which you are engaged. Some adversaries, moreover, will aggressively attempt to bind your clients to any offer or suggestion you make (in deal negotiations, in settlement of disputes and in the course of managing a litigation). You may be forced to backtrack from such offers when the client or supervising lawyer learns of the encounter. Even if you disclaim the offer, moreover, coping with the incident may become a distraction (and an unnecessary expense).

The Cure: Thoroughly discuss the limits of your authority with clients and supervising lawyers. When in doubt (or lacking any instructions), disclaim authority in advance of any discussion. Use phrases like: “All I can do is listen and relay your suggestion.” If necessary, state the limits of your authority, in writing, before dealing with a bellicose adversary. After any encounter, report all discussions promptly and thoroughly to the client and/or supervising lawyer.


The more complex the matter, the more probable it is that multiple lawyers and other professionals will take responsibility for various parts of the matter. Coordination of personnel can become a significant challenge for supervising lawyers. Even on simple matters, a supervising lawyer may wrongly assume that you are handling most of the administrative trivia (everything from distributing documents, to filing of papers, to arranging travel and conference space, and much more). Missing some of these steps can result in missed deadlines and waivers of rights, as well as inconvenience, expense and embarrassment.

The Cure: Be super organized. Keep lists of tasks and assignments. Share them with team members, and solicit team input. When you see a task that needs doing, or can predict a need in the future, speak up. Identify the issue and (where appropriate) offer to help out.


Most law firm projects center on one or more key documents: a contract, an SEC disclosure, a pleading, a brief, and many more. Often, moreover, a law firm team must work with an array of documents, each team member working with parts of the documents at various times. When key documents are lost or altered, project work may be greatly disrupted.

The Cure: Treat all essential documents as property of the team, not your personal property. When you receive an important document, make sure the team knows you have it, promptly. Distribute copies as appropriate. E-mails with PDF attachments are often an ideal low-cost method for this purpose. Some project teams have more sophisticated document-showing platforms and protocols. Learn them; use them. In many instances, moreover, the client will want copies of key documents. Take responsibility for such distribution of materials, or make sure that someone else has taken up the task.

When creating word processing documents, use a consistent method to identify documents on the system (by document number, client number, document title and/or other means). Generally, make sure that all key documents are on the firm’s system, not just your personal hard drive, laptop or home computer. Most word processing systems will place a document number on each document, so that a hard copy can be traced to the system. Do not make changes in another team member’s document without permission. Show your (proposed) charges on a hard copy or create a new version, which the team can accept, reject or modify. Keep track of versions of a document, and make sure that revisions are made on the appropriate (usually, latest) version.

When you finish a project, leave a project team, move offices or leave the firm, make sure that your essential documents are properly handled. Learn the firm’s policies for sending documents to a file room or off-site storage. Offer to let a team member or supervisor review your cache of documents, before you move, to confirm what can be discarded, and what stored (or transferred to another team member).


The foregoing is hardly a complete catalogue of all the ways that an assignment can go wrong in a law firm. But it should give you a sense of the kinds of problems that commonly occur, and an awareness that it is important to take personal responsibility for such problems, to avoid them where possible and to fix them when they arise. In that sense, professional responsibility is easy: “Act like a professional; take responsibility.”

Bringing problems to the attention of supervisors will not get you fired. What could get you fired is to let a problem develop, and grow, without any word to anyone at a time when the problem could be solved with grace and economy. If you really want to get yourself fired, ignore the problem, hope that a supervisor discovers it and solves it, and (when asked), blame the problem on someone else. That is not just cowardice; it can be career suicide.

Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City offices of Jones Day and a member of the firm’s Training Committee. His publications include: “The Path to Partnership: A Guide For Junior Associates” (Praeger 2004).