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Phrases and Questions to Avoid as a New Associate

By George Khoury, Esq. on September 25, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You know Janice in accounting, the one John Oliver seems to obsess over (come on John, you know Janice can't be responsible for all those yogurts), well, she might be able to get away with her antics, because she's an accountant, and well ... she's also a fictional character.

But, as a lawyer in the real world, short of nepotism, your attitude and work ethic will likely be the determining factors over whether you advance. Below you can read about some of the most important phrases and questions to avoid if you hope to advance within a firm or company.

You're a Lawyer. Act Like One.

You know that idiom about there being no such thing as a stupid question? It's not entirely true. What you ask and the words you choose matter. Also, who you ask can be critical.

If you graduated from law school, you should have at least been taught some rudimentary legal research skills. If you have a question about something procedural, or substantive, don't ask a partner, or anyone for that matter, until you've looked up and read the pertinent code sections or cases. If you still have questions, find a treatise or law review to read.

While asking about a procedural matter is never a stupid question, who you ask can reflect poorly. You're a lawyer, so start with yourself. If after researching, you're still confused, then, and only then, can you raise it to a supervising or managing attorney. Being diligent matters big time, and though it may seem like a thankless, time-consuming task, it pays off in the long run.

Specific Phrases to Avoid

Unfortunately, many young lawyers, when faced with seemingly insurmountable tasks, or just more than they think they can handle, have the tendency to respond in ways that will reflect poorly on those two determinative characteristics -- work ethic and attitude. When it comes to these, while what you do is critical, what you say is important at shaping how others see you. If you use phrases like the ones below when not speaking with opposing counsel, your managers and others will take notice:

"There's nothing I can do."
"That's Impossible."
"That's not my job."

When you're assigned a task that's "impossible," find out what is possible. And the whole "that's not my job" line shouldn't ever leave your mouth (again, unless you're talking to opposing counsel), as you should be able to delegate items that are "not your job" to staff below you; and if there's no qualified staff below you, it is your job.

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