“I didn’t go to law school to click a screen all day. I could train my dog to do this!”
I was taking the Acela from New York to DC when I overheard a junior associate from a major New York firm complaining to his colleague about having to spend the last week doing what he called “grunt work.” In his case, that meant reviewing documents for one of his cases.
Hey, if he actually could teach his dog to review documents, law school truly was an epic waste of his talents.
But of course, he was simply speaking out of frustration at having to do work he felt was beneath his skill level.
(By the way, how did I know he was an associate at one particular firm? Because he spent the ride loudly talking about his firm and his work in general. Be very careful about what you talk about in public spaces for confidentiality/ethics rules and because your reputation follows you everywhere.)
Obviously, we all went to law school to be lawyers, not mouse clickers. And yet, throughout our careers, especially when we’re junior, we will find ourselves doing tasks that don’t necessarily feel like the things we thought a lawyer would do as we grew up watching Law and Order or reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
As I discuss below, document review is actually an incredibly important task, even though it can feel tedious in the moment. If you find yourself feeling down about spending your workday doing what feels like grunt work, try the following four tips to reframe it in your mind.
1. Think of grunt work as an investment in your future.
As your career progresses, you may find yourself looking back on the days when your responsibilities were fairly minimal with some longing on occasion. Sometimes it’s nice to spend a few hours doing document review in the comfort of your office for some easy, low-pressure billable hours.
Learning how to do more basic tasks when you’re junior also helps you to understand what needs to be done when you do get to manage a case or delegate work. It’s not necessary that you do each task you delegate, but it can be helpful. When I first started working at a firm, I remember another junior associate bragging that he had avoided getting staffed on a single document review assignment during his entire first year. A couple years later when he was a midlevel associate, he confessed that he wished he had some experience working on a document review team, as it would have made managing a team of document reviewers much easier. Think of the grunt work you’re doing now as an investment in your future senior-level self.
2. Remind yourself of the positives of your job.
There are always trade-offs at work, and the vast majority of us will spend at least some of our working day doing tasks we don’t like very much. If you’re spending most of your day doing work you dislike, it can be tough to find anything positive about your job. Try anyway. Are you able to work remotely? Or in a nice office? Can you pay your bills with room to spare? If you’re working in a big law firm, you’re getting paid a ton of money to do this work, providing you with funds to pay down any student loans, save for retirement, and enjoy a pretty nice life. There aren’t many jobs that place you in the top 10% of all U.S. earners immediately after graduation.
3. Remember that grunt work can be very important.
The small stuff matters in law. A comma placement can change the meaning of an entire agreement. Document review can be mind-numbing, but the key documents you identify become the deposition and trial exhibits which help build your case. Cite and substance checks of legal briefs can be tedious but are incredibly important. I will never forget a case I worked on where opposing counsel – from a very reputable international law firm – argued in their briefing that a certain case related to XYZ area of law and stood for ABC proposition. When we reviewed the case, we realized it actually related to a different area of law altogether and really had no relevance to the current dispute (a point we made at the hearing). The judge was not pleased by opposing counsel’s misrepresentation and noted as much on the record. A failure to properly do the “grunt work” in that case damaged that counsel’s reputation with the judge in a lawsuit that ran several years.
4. Take care of your life outside of work.
It’s very important that you don’t let work consume you. That can be easier said than done as a junior attorney with little or no control over your schedule, but even if billable hours constitute the majority of your waking hours, do not fall into the trap of getting all your feelings of self-worth at the office. Work is just one piece of your life–it’s what you do, not who you are. Keeping that perspective can help you shrug off daily annoyances at work because it holds less overall importance in your life.
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