The practice of law is not an exercise in isolationism and introversion, but is instead a profession built substantially on collegiality and relationship building. Although it is often easier for an associate to view his or her office as the comfortable cave for a day’s hibernation, where the outside world and the remainder of the firm can be shut out with the mere close of a door, sometimes it is vitally important to leave the door open, even if it just a small crack.
The help that finds its way through that slight opening can be exponentially more important than the closed-off mountain of work being tackled on the other end. Granted, there are plenty of times where a silent and secluded workspace is necessary for proper work product, but there are always exceptions to this rule.
As a younger associate, I often find days where my legal pad page of assignments is bursting at its margins. In fact, there have been days when I am even compelled to use the margins themselves in order to keep everything organized in a coherent manner. Of course, being busy is one of the greatest accomplishments an associate can attain. Busyness is job security. At the same time, however, busyness can be a difficult reality to cope with. It is difficult to manage a workload perfectly when you have little control over the flow of the assignment of tasks themselves. While partners do their best to be fair and spread out assignments in an even manner, there are times when the firm in general is working to capacity and everyone is required to take on more responsibility than normal. Cases have the tendency to heat up randomly and, sometimes, they catch fire simultaneously.
Recently, I found myself immersed in one of those to-do list filling spans of days that have made it especially difficult to avoid a self-induced calamity. From top to bottom, my assignment list one morning was filled to the brim with client calls, unanswered voicemails and emails, multiple research issues stacking up, briefs requiring my attention and loads of discovery steadily making its way through the door. Every time I was able to complete one assignment, multiple others immediately rushed in. The multiples of assignments were not exactly as glamorous as the seven swans a-swimming and a partridge in a pear tree that are usually associated with the holiday season. In fact, my situation lacked any residual holiday cheer whatsoever, but the predicament was nonetheless the reality. I entered the office that morning, shut my door and began a feeble attempt to organize my thoughts, but my internal compass was spinning wildly with due dates, the various assignments that continued their impending thumps on the already-closed door and thoughts of the impossibility of completing all of my tasks in a timely manner. Even though being busy correlates with job security, missing deadlines tends to trend in the opposite direction.
All of a sudden, my distracting thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. After exchanging pleasantries with my fellow associate visitor and discussing the latest occurrences in our respective practices, I described my predicament: multiple assignments, impending and overlapping “hard” due dates and a global lack of sufficient time. The response, not surprisingly, was that all associates find themselves in the position that I was in. This area, which dwells somewhere between manageably busy and completely overwhelmed, becomes a comfortable home to many, but was an uncharted territory for me. The associate simply stated, “I think that I can help,” and disappeared.
As I waited for his return, I quickly pondered what possible solution he could have actually devised within a few seconds that had conveniently avoided my own train of thinking for hours. Within a matter of minutes, my mid-morning visitor wrangled an entire army of associates to pitch in and get the work done (by army, I mean two or three, but the exaggeration of the mass of my saviors serves this instant telling of the story much better). The last option I desired was to shift my burden to another associate, especially considering that many of us had already reached our billable hours goals and were not actively searching for more “filler” assignments. The season of giving, however, had delivered in my time of need. With some creative reworking of the assignments and assistance from some willing colleagues, I was back on track to complete all of my tasks on time. One of them took a research memo, another handled revisions to a rough draft of an important brief and still another diverted the attention of some persistent partners to buy me some temporary reprieve.
From this experience it became evident that working in a vacuum is generally not the best solution, especially for a younger associate. Instead, it is important to have colleagues to bounce ideas off of, to fill in for you when you have a scheduling conflict, to listen to your predicaments and to pick up the slack when you are too overwhelmed and overloaded to keep pace. Practicing law is clearly a team sport.
In law school, acting as a team in the most important and stressful moments of the term, such as final examinations, was considered cheating. The examination period was a time for strictly individual performance. However, on the other end of the spectrum, when you are part of a sports team, acting as strictly an individual is generally frowned upon and often a detriment to the team. Teams, although made up of individuals, are able to function better if every member thereof works together cohesively. The gray areas in between where you are part of a team and where you are expected to act as an individual, unfortunately, are countless and amorphous.
The heart of my instant problem stemmed from my lack of recognition that I was actually playing on a team. Sure, I recognized that if everyone works hard the entire group generally benefits, but I failed to realize that, although there is a level of healthy competition among associates seeking the same goal of partnership, there still is plenty of collegiality as well. People are willing to help each other because, inevitably, everyone needs that help in return at some point. Without the reciprocity of helping, which is sometimes buried in a legal field so often cast as cutthroat, unforgiving and intimidating, the system breaks down.
Asking for help is often not an easily accomplished task. It requires recognition that you cannot always accomplish everything on your own, the knowledge of where and what type of help is available, and finally making the leap to actually ask someone for his or her assistance. Sometimes it seems easier to lift the entire world on your shoulders and attempt to accomplish a variety of tasks independently, as opposed to finding a more efficient way of succeeding. Recognizing that others are willing to help is just as important as recognizing that you need others.
In the end, my predicament worked out for the best: all of the assignments were completed on time. I completed most of the assignments on my own, but others were accomplished with the help of the team. In the future, feeling overwhelmed or trapped may happen again, but I have discovered the coping skills and solutions to deal with a similar situation when it inevitably arises down the road. From now on I know that sometimes the only way to get by is with a little help from your friends. •
Michael J. Joyce is an associate of the commercial law and litigation practice group in the Pittsburgh office of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, focusing his practice on commercial disputes and products liability matters. He can be reached at 412-281-7272 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.