DTCI: Young attorneys should rely on their own devices at work

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kevin tyra DTCIElbert Hubbard was a writer in the Horatio Alger vein in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His best-known essay, “A Message to Garcia” (1899), tells a story from the Spanish-American War. President William McKinley needed a letter delivered to Gen. Calixto Garcia, a rebel commander somewhere in the mountains of Cuba. One of his advisors recommended Lt. Andrew Rowan.

McKinley gave Rowan the letter. Rowan took the letter without a word and departed. Four days later, Rowan landed by night on the Cuban coast. Three weeks later, Rowan appeared on the far side of the island, having delivered the letter to Garcia.

Hubbard’s point in the story is that Rowan did not ask the president, “How am I supposed to find Garcia?” Rowan had the confidence and resourcefulness to figure that out on his own, rather than bothering his superior with such questions. Hubbard asserted that such people are the ones who succeed in life, as opposed to those who need everything spelled out for them.

This is a useful lesson for today’s law firm associates, as well as any relatively junior attorney, whether in a corporate legal department, government agency or elsewhere. To the extent practicable, young attorneys should rely on their own devices to determine what needs to be done, and how to do it, rather than expect the more senior attorney to spell it out for them.

There are limits to this, of course. It behooves the more senior attorney to provide guidance to the subordinate when appropriate. If, for example, the more senior attorney already has specific themes or ideas in mind for the motion for summary judgment, he should share those with the subordinate at the outset. And if the more senior attorney is well versed on an issue and the subordinate has virtually no experience, it makes sense to provide some guidance that may significantly reduce the time the subordinate spends on the project, which presumably the client would appreciate. But the first thought of the associate should be, “How can I figure this out for myself?”

Which brings me to the concept of “completed staff work.” I learned this as a young Navy JAG officer assigned for two years as a ship’s legal officer 30 years ago (I also learned that the shell-backing ceremony when the ship crosses the equator is really disgusting, but that’s a different story).

When making either a written or an oral report to the commanding officer, the staff officer is expected to answer, or be ready to answer, all foreseeable questions the commanding officer may have that were raised in the report. If, for example, you recommend filing court-martial charges against a sailor, also describe (or be prepared to describe) the witnesses and evidence anticipated by both the prosecution and defense and analyze the likely outcome of the court-martial, as well as any blow-back, such as the effect on crew morale.

If the commanding officer has any questions (particularly any unanswered questions) at the end of your report, you have failed to produce completed staff work.

And for any question the commanding officer may have for you at any time, there are only two acceptable answers: (1) a correct, complete and substantive answer to the question; or (2) “I don’t know, Captain, but I will find out and report back to you promptly.”

This concept is fully applicable to just about everything we do in the civilian legal profession as well. It applies to memoranda and other work-product for more senior attorneys in the office, as well as to pleadings to the court.

Where many attorneys are more likely to fall short in this regard is in communications to the client (particularly the corporate or claim-department client).

When you report to the client that you have received the opposing party’s responses to your written discovery, do you highlight what is significant about the responses? What is different from the information you previously had? And what are the next steps, leading to what ultimate disposition in the case?

When you review your work-product, if you put yourself in the shoes of the recipient and can think of no more questions that you have left unanswered, you have likely achieved completed staff work, and you are ready to hit “Send.”•


Kevin C. Tyra is a director of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana and the principal of The Tyra Law Firm P.C. in Indianapolis. The opinions in this article are those of the author.


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.