This morning, Above The Law posted seven tips for new contract attorneys. Take a moment to look over their list and explanations; generally, it contains some good advice.

Their second tip, “Don’t ask hypothetical questions”, is particularly wise.

Use the question time after a training to clarify any confusing or conflicting information provided in training.  I also like to ask, for the benefit of the team, some general information about the first custodians we’ll encounter (who they are and how they relate to the case, the types of documents we expect – emails, share files, chats, etc). As advised above, though, don’t try and speculate on coding of hypothetical documents. Don’t ask administrative questions of someone there to provide substantive guidance. They don’t know where to find the restroom, can’t provide you the work schedule and aren’t going to direct you to the best deli for lunch.

Far too often, someone new to a project will want to demonstrate their experience with the subject matter or general intelligence and ask either a rambling, confusing question or they’ll set out to play “Stump the Associate.”

With the confusing question, any answer is likely to complicate coding for many of your peers, as they will be unclear both on the exact substance of your question and how to apply whatever response is given to the documents they ultimately will face. If you try to embarrass or outshine the associate sent to conduct training, you’re quite possibly at risk of not remaining on the project (particularly if you are wrong).

Remember, your agency’s client is likely the very person you just insulted. The livelihood of everyone involved in your project revolves around providing high quality work to that case team while keeping them happy. Trying to “crack the case” with some magical question or other interaction with counsel will surely cause you to be remembered, but likely not favorably. Embarrassing or insulting clients is not a way to retain business.

Similarly, offering unsolicited insights on case strategy and matters unrelated to the facts we’re uncovering in discovery can be frustrating. Everyone wants to apply their skills and experience, but each person on a matter has a specific role. Going outside assigned duties, particularly as a temporary member of the team, is often not well-received.

Do focus on generating example-based questions once you’re looking at documents. Often, protocols are written long before anyone has a firm understanding of the material you will encounter. Distinctions between issues that were not anticipated, documents that don’t squarely fall into a responsiveness category but seem relevant and even factual issues that play into making determinations are all fair game for questions. If you need clarification, speak up.

I strongly prefer example-based questions because they make it easy on the person providing an answer and gives them quick insight into what you’re seeing. Instead of asking a simple question of general applicability, give one or more Document IDs, a quick one-line statement that explains the example and then ask the question. If you can propose a coding for the document, do that as well. For example:

GGL9954323.234.234 – Email dated 7/10/10 from Smith to Jones, discusses plan to buy competitor device at Buy Mart on way home from work – his daughter wants one for birthday. Per protocol, documents showing purchase of competitor devices for research purposes should be marked with Issues 8, 13 and 17. Should documents reflecting personal use or purchase also be included as responsive under these issues?

Questions like this are in a form that can be easily forwarded with minimal alteration (long, rambling questions often require someone to edit them before asking for answers) and provides a reference to the actual document along with a simple explanation, which makes it far easier to evaluate the question and reply if the document is not immediately accessible.

Generally, getting an answer faster is a good thing, since it prevents miscoding documents (necessitating clean-up) if the answer is not what was expected. The question-writer can facilitate that by making responding easy.

Sixth Form Common Room image courtesy of Rob Brewer.