Advice to Young Litigators: The Buck Stops Here

February 16, 2016


New litigators are at the low end of the totem pole, the food chain, and the other proverbial hierarchies. Sometimes it seems as though only the most mundane or insignificant tasks trickle down—basic research, cite-checking, proofreading, etc. Do not be fooled, though. Focusing solely on the individual assignments as they come and go is a rookie mistake. The junior litigator on a trial team should have an in-depth understanding of the entire case and know their role within the larger scheme. That role is not always explained by the senior associates or partners—but it is always expected that the associate be well versed in their matters. As a young litigator, I strive to live by the phrase memorialized in a plaque that sat upon President Truman’s desk in the oval office:“The buck stops here.” Indeed it does. The buck stops with me, with us, the junior associates, the lowest points on the totem pole, at the bottom of the food chain.

I have made it my mission to know everything I can about the cases to which I am assigned and, no matter how attenuated an assignment might be, I always complete it with an eye towards where it fits into the larger picture. Here is an example. Let’s imagine I receive the following email: “We are going to file a motion to dismiss, we need research on X, Y, and Z by the end of the week.” Sure, the email is detailed enough for me to hop on some legal research sites and return to the senior associate or partner a treatise containing all of the applicable law related to X, Y, and Z. But what good is that? Clearly, the assignment is meant to help shape a motion to dismiss. The research, then, should be completed with that goal in mind. Instead of returning a memorandum on everything the jurisdiction has said on the issue (after confirming first with the senior associate or partner), I send back draft brief sections for why our client should be granted a dismissal of the action. I carefully review the complaint and any other helpful case documents, conduct thorough research, draft sections with the senior associate’s/partner’s writing style in mind, and endeavor to be as persuasive as possible for the particular judge. I treat the seemingly minor research assignment as a large responsibility of crafting a meticulously researched, legally sound, persuasive argument for dismissal of the action against our client. I act as if it is up to me to convince the decision maker that dismissal is the correct decision. Admittedly, this may be a fantasy-type endeavor, as my “brief” will likely be changed and molded before submission (if it is even utilized). But, this fantasy, this imposed responsibility, the belief that the buck stops with me, drives my work and helps to create an immensely better and more helpful product. Further, it shows my superiors that I am pro-active, prepared to take on responsibility, and go beyond what is only minimally needed in the service of the client.

So, young litigators, I say to you, the buck stops here. The buck stops with you. Treat each case as your own and hold yourself to the highest standard. Your superiors and your future career will thank you.

Originally published in Section of Litigation, Commercial & Business Litigation, Practice Points ©2016 by the American Bar Association.

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