In Law, Forest-for-the-Trees Mindset Helps Associates Succeed

It sounds simple, but focusing not on the task at hand but on the actual resolution of a problem or project—seeing the forest for the trees, as it were—can make all the difference in the world when it comes to “making it” in business–and law is no exception.

Does this differentiation really have to be made?  Apparently, says Mark Herrmann of Aon and Above The Law blogger.  “It’s remarkable how long it takes some junior lawyers to realize that their job is not to do the minimum amount of work needed to get the partner off their back, but rather to help the partner accomplish something,” he says.

In other words, it helps if you try to see things from your taskmaster’s point of view.  What’s his or her larger issue? Keeping your nose to the grindstone will get the job done, but perhaps just barely…if you don’t know (or particularly care) why you’re doing it in the first place.  Not sure where your project fits into the big equation?  Ask questions.

It’s also important to try to remove yourself from the mindset that seeks to avoid “boring” or unwanted projects. They’re not going to go away.  And, again, if you focus on the forest (project) as opposed to just the trees (tasks) in front of you, you’ll realize that “the need to complete projects, rather than to perform tasks, never ends.”

According to Hermann, this isn’t about ranking or hierarchy.  This is an attitude, a willingness to help a partner to achieve what he or she is trying to achieve.   One way in which the author categorizes helpful and not-so-helpful associates is to call the helpful colleague project-oriented and the unhelpful colleague an order-taker.

This breakdown is illustrated in the following scenario:  A partner tells a junior lawyer that he’s had a thought about a brief, and that he’d like the junior partner to develop that thought as it relates to the brief.   Now, an order-taker would come back with only one sentence altered. Tehnically, that might be correct, but it wouldn’t prove very helpful in the long run.

A project-minded individual, on the other hand, might catch on. That one little thought—based on years of experience–might just change the entire playing field. The junior partner, if  she or he is smart, will approach the partner at day’s end with the pertinent parts of the brief–introduction, statement of facts, the argument and the citations–revised to reflect the partner’s thoughts.

Or, if he or she isn’t totally on board with the partner’s way of looking at the case, the junior partner might say:  “I’ve considered your thought, read over the relevant cases and examined our evidentiary cases.”  As Herrmann’s scenario unfolds, he has the junior associate summarize with: “I’m not sure that your idea works in this context.  These are my concerns…. [And] I was thinking of modifying your thought to add the new argument in a slightly different way….”

And there, ladies and gentlemen, we have a helpful, project-oriented associate who sees the forest AND the trees.   Bottom line:  Don’t merely perform tasks, notes Herrmann. Instead, “execute projects.  The world will beat a path to your door.”   To read more, go here:



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