This summer, I’ll be posting Q&As from summer associates and summer interns. Have a question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Today, I give advice to a summer who is overwhelmed with work.
A summer associate at a firm writes, “I have too much work to do. I keep getting ‘emergency assignments’ and then I run out of time to do other work I had already been assigned. I don’t want to blow my deadlines, so I’ve been turning everything in, but I don’t think I’m doing my best work because I am so rushed. What can I do to stop this?”
Ah yes, the “emergency” assignment. In legal life, there are definitely time pressures. There are also attorneys who mark every email as urgent and give false deadlines because they like their work to be prioritized over everyone else’s and/or they don’t manage their time well and by the time they delegate to you, their own deadline is fast approaching.
I don’t tell you this to suggest that it’s your job as a summer associate to evaluate whether these “emergencies” are truly emergencies, but to preview your junior associate life. This is an issue you will almost certainly face once you hit fulltime employment, so the earlier you figure out how to address it, the better.
The truth is, this isn’t all on you! It is the job of your supervisor(s) to help you prioritize. They truly know when they need your work product, but they don’t know that you’re overwhelmed unless you ask for help.
Clear communication is crucial here, and it starts when you get a new assignment, or an email from an attorney asking if you can help with something urgent.
You need to be upfront about your schedule. Are you working on a project for another attorney due tomorrow? Let this new attorney know that you’ve got another deadline, and you’d be happy to assist with their project tomorrow afternoon. If that doesn’t work for them, they’ll find someone else or they can confer with your other assigning attorney and work out the prioritization between the two of them. The key to doing this while still appearing to be an enthusiastic team player is to state your conflict while making clear that you’d love to help out if you can.
If you only have one supervisor or the attorney reaching out now is the one for whom you are already working on a deadline, don’t make the common mistake of assuming they remember everything else on your plate. You need to communicate to them too. Saying something like, “I’ve been working on the memo for the Jones case you asked me for tomorrow. Should I put that on hold until this urgent assignment is done?” reminds them of your other work so they can confirm for you whether this new project takes priority.
If you take these simple steps when you get new assignments, you’ll go a long way to prevent getting overwhelmed with work in the future.
But what do you do now when you’re already overwhelmed with work?
It’s not too late to communicate! Make a list of everything on your plate, the deadlines, and how much time you think you need to complete each project. Then look for conflicts. Reach out to the attorneys where there’s a conflict and ask for their help prioritizing.
If you’ve already turned in work you worry is not good enough, reach out to those attorneys and ask for feedback. They may think your work is fine. If they tell you it’s not what they wanted, offer to fix the issue and apologize (more on fixing work mistakes here). It’s fine to explain that you got a little bit underwater with other work, just do it in the tone of explaining why this won’t happen again rather than trying to justify your misstep. And rest assured, the senior attorneys you’re working with have likely been in your shoes. To some extent, they even expect junior attorneys to screw up a little. Messing up isn’t the problem – failing to recognize when you have screwed up and then repeating the same mistakes is a problem. So by explaining that you understand how the issue occurred – your plate was too full and you didn’t ask for help prioritizing – and noting that you’ll head that off in the future by communicating better, you’re demonstrating that you’re coachable and you understand how you should operate in the office. That’s the kind of junior attorney senior lawyers want to work with.
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