Listening checklist for taking a new assignment

Meeting with a senior attorney to discuss a new assignment is a critical moment. Here is a checklist of information to listen for, organized in three groups:

  • the most critical items
  • additional information that may be covered explicitly or implicitly, and may be appropriate to ask about
  • deeper, more intuitive information that really should not be asked about but may become apparent through careful listening

Critical information: Certain information should be covered explicitly. If you don’t hear it in what the assigning attorney covers, ask about it.

  • Who is the client?
  • What are the relevant facts?
  • What is the relevant area of law (or suspected relevant area)?
  • What is the expected format of the assignment (e.g. an e-mail, an in-depth research memo, a draft letter, a deposition outline)?
  • When is the assignment due?
  • If applicable, what is the billing reference number?

Additional information: The assigning attorney may bring up additional helpful information. You may be able to ask some or perhaps all of these questions if they don’t come up independently.

  • How much time is it expected to take?
  • How complex is it expected to be?
  • Does the assigning attorney want a follow-up e-mail confirming the assignment?
  • Does the assigning attorney want to be checked in with, or simply have the completed assignment delivered on or before the due date?
  • Does the attorney want you to follow a particular sample?
  • If the attorney does want you to follow a sample, is it a sample of the document setup or of the writing and analysis, or both, or something else?
  • Who will read the final work product?
  • How does this assignment fit into the larger context of the larger representation of this client?
  • Should you research the facts any further — or would that be inappropriate? (In other words: should the assignment be based only on what was stated in the initial meeting, or can and should you spend additional time reading background files or talking to people who know about the case?)
  • Are there any recommended resources to use for the assignment — for example, well-known specialized research resources?

Intuitive information: Some information is not explicit and is not the kind of thing that can or should be asked about directly. But it may be available by careful listening to word choice, nonverbal signals, and what is not said.

  • Does the assigning attorney enjoy working on this particular case or matter?
  • Does the assigning attorney have a sense of autonomy over his or her own role in the project?
  • Is this assignment something that is truly necessary in the short term, and that other lawyers will rely on? Or is it more of an evaluation tool for assessing you?

Thanks to Professor Tami Lefko for feedback on this checklist.


5 thoughts on “Listening checklist for taking a new assignment

  1. Jennifer, thank you so much for this checklist, the blog, and the presentation that you and Tami Lefko did in Philadelphia. I have decided that incorporating an assignment where instructions are provided orally is likely to improve learning outcomes long-term and better prepare my students for the real world. Often, it seems that our students who struggle are students who did not understand the assignment instructions. Later, some of these students may want to argue that the written instructions were vague or ambiguous in some way. However, interpreting a law school assignment or question is actually part of the skill that we are teaching them, and it is a skill that they will need for other classes, for the bar exam, and for the real world. My theory is that this problem can be addressed by discussing listening skills, explaining that the goals include listening and interpreting the assignment, and providing an oral assignment. I believe that first this approach will prime students for the idea that interpreting the assignment is supposed to be challenging and that they will have to work to interpret it. I think that may shift the way they approach assignments overall. In the end, I think that they may have better comprehension as a result. I have shared this idea with my LRW colleagues at Barry. Thank you so much again for your work in this area! Best, Cathren Koehlert-Page

  2. Thanks for your comment, Cathren. Comprehending and interpreting oral instructions are definitely skills that will help future lawyers. And sometimes in practice, the assigning attorney’s recollection of the assignment really does change, or what is actually needed changes because the client’s issue is rapidly evolving. Having good listening skills and good people skills can help lawyers navigate challenging professional situations with grace. Best, Jennifer

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