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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.”•

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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. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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