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Bridging the Divide: What to Do When Joining a Legal Department as a Young Professional

By Will Pett posted 04-09-2021 10:13


Please enjoy this thoughtful conversation revolving around the topic "Bridging the Divide: What Do When Joining a Legal Department as a Young Professional" between Will Pett, Business Analyst, Fidelity Investments, Kevin Mucyo, Asst Analyst I, Bayer U.S. LLC, and Ryan Gerlach, eDiscovery Associate, Los Angeles, eDiscovery and Litigation Services, Office of the Attorney General, California Department of Justice.

Will: Question #1: What was the hardest thing at first about connecting with older or more experienced colleagues and supervisors?

Ryan: At Sidley, I think it was just the atmosphere of this international law firm with big cases going on every day and everyone always running around trying to meet billable hour quotas that felt really intimidating to want to speak to older colleagues because I didn't want to feel like I was wasting their valuable time. 

There's also just a generational gap so it can be less likely that you're going to connect over your personal interests or educational history than you would with someone a little closer to your age. At the DOJ though, there wasn't really any difficulty in connecting with older colleagues because our local eDiscovery group is pretty small so everyone on my team is an older colleague at this point. The hardest part I would say is just the lack of a physical presence in the office currently due to the pandemic.

Kevin: Maybe the way we socialized, we didn't have a lot in common. But we got to know each better other as days went by as we shared coffee every morning, and they are very easy to talk to.

Will: Question #2: Were you able to connect with older or more experienced colleagues and supervisors in any unexpected ways?

​Ryan: There were a few times, yes. I remember at Sidley that there was a senior paralegal who I was working with who I mentioned offhandedly to that I was Diabetic and she told me her daughter was too so from then on we'd discuss new technology and information about treatment and cures and she would occasionally make sure that I wasn't working through lunch and causing my blood sugar to lower. There was also a senior eDiscovery analyst at Sidley who happened to play the same video game as some friends and I so occasionally at lunch we would talk about that and what was going on with the game. A lot of those unexpected connections just came from occasional small talk and discussions with people during breaks and showed to me that even though there would be some age and generational gaps, people may share some of your interests or life experiences and those can be chances to connect and discuss those topics.

Kevin: Professionally yes. My colleagues are willing to work on the weekends or holidays to get urgent tasks completed and meet deadlines scheduled, and I have no issue sacrificing a few hours to avoid any backlog either.​

Will: Q3: If you previously held any other jobs, what differences were there in comparison to working in a corporate/government legal department?

I think the biggest difference between Sidley and the California Department of Justice is the level of resources available to throw at problems we encounter. At Sidley, there would be times where something needed to be turned around on a very quick time table or required some specific knowledge or skillset and so we would be able to reach out to vendors to take care of those kinds of projects pretty easily. With the DOJ, those resources aren't always there or the authorization process for them could take longer than we have time to complete the project so it has forced me to work smarter and diversify my skill set and knowledge as much as I can to try to accomplish those tasks myself or with the assistance of an older colleague. I think the other big difference is the level of pressure revolving around billable hours.

At Sidley, and it's my understanding at many private firms, there is a big emphasis on making sure you are hitting a quota of billable hours to ensure that you are constantly being productive and serving your clients. Which can be a good work ethic to have as you're spending a lot time and money to ensure that your clients are getting the best representation you can give. However, this can lead to a lot of pressure to find new projects and continue working for as long as possible in a work day which can be a little overwhelming at times when the workflow is slow. At the DOJ, you still want to make sure you are constantly being productive and assisting with cases and projects that you receive but there is a little less pressure from that model.

Kevin: The level of respect employees have for each other no matter what position you occupy in the company was and continues to be a great experience in our legal department.

Will: Q4: What were your initial impressions of the department's culture? Did it feel like an old fashioned or a modern workplace?

To be honest, I'm still learning about the Department's culture. There are whole case teams of people who I work with who I have not even met yet because of the quarantine and so I haven't had a chance to get to know. But with the few people who I have worked more directly with and gotten to know, the culture is very modern.

There is not a lot of physical separation from our supervisors so if we're encountering any difficulties or have any questions about something, they are easily approachable and happy to help. And more often than not, if someone on a legal team is asking for help and making suggestions that you don't think seem quite right for the results they want, they are amenable to hearing your suggestions on what may be the best way to accomplish what it is they want to accomplish.

Kevin: My initial impressions of my department's culture was that everyone applies the LIFE (Leadership, Integrity, Flexibility, and Efficiency) values of the company in their everyday life. I think it is a mixture of both, because we like to follow our documentation step by step, but we're also very flexible and ready to adapt to any change that comes our way. We are also always looking for new and creative ways we can improve our processes (example: looking out for new collection or processing tools available).

Will: Q5: Have you ever experienced colleagues or supervisors not taking you seriously because of your relative youth? If so, how did you handle those situations?

Ryan: I've been lucky enough where I have not encountered a situation like this before. I think part of that is due to the fact that I am very up front with my knowledge base. If I know how to do something I will ask a few follow up questions about an assignment to make sure I know what is expected and get it done. And if there is a task that I am more unfamiliar with, maybe it requires a new software or something like that, I will note that it is something I am unfamiliar with and may take a bit more time to familiarize myself with the task or tools at hand.

Because of this, people are usually able to trust me to get things done quickly or request further help if they think this requires someone with a little more experience. But I think as long as you are confident in your knowledge base and make it clear that you know what you are talking about with the subjects that you are comfortable with and knowledgeable about, people won't have a problem taking you seriously.

Kevin: So far I don't think so, I think my colleagues have done a great job taking me under their wings and introducing me to e-Discovery despite being very new to me.​

Will: Q6: Conversely, have you ever felt any sort of expectations from colleagues or supervisors about "things you must know all about since you're young?"

In both of the work environments I've worked in, I've rarely encountered this mindset. I think there have been a few times at Sidley where an attorney working for a client that was popular with younger people would ask me what I knew about them or if I had heard of something, but I don't think that my age ever really created any expectations for what I would know about, especially since at Sidley they have such a wide age range to their staff and attorneys that knowledge could really come from anyone on a team. At the DOJ I also haven't really encountered this either, but that could also be because of the lack of direct meetings with case teams and coworkers so I haven't had as much of a chance to discuss my interests or background.

Kevin: ​I think I've always been pushed by my manager to not be afraid to contribute my ideas or ask a question in times of confusion and uncertainty. So, the expectation is basically to be free to engage with my team and use my knowledge to help the group thrive.

Will: Q7/Last Question: What advice would you give to a young professional starting their career in a corporate/government legal department? What's the one thing you've learned that you wish you knew starting out?

My advice would be to familiarize yourself with the legal technology available to you as much as you can. So much of legal work nowadays requires so many different programs to maximize the efficiency of your workflow that understanding how to do that will really save you a lot of time and headaches later. If the programs you work with have professional certification exams as well, those might be a good thing to look into as well for a chance to grow your knowledge base and diversify your skill set a little more.

These types of things can really make you indispensable to your department and teams specifically and give you a better idea of how to accomplish any tough tasks in the future. In terms of starting out, I think a big thing to keep in mind is that your team wants to support you and make sure you get the job done, so don't be afraid to ask questions about subjects you are unfamiliar with when it comes to your work. Obviously do your due diligence and try to find the answer for yourself, but if you just can't figure out what to do about a task that you are struggling with, it's okay to reach out to your older colleagues and say something like "Hey I'm really struggling with this task and having trouble understanding where the problems are. Can you help?"

Kevin: ​To learn and connect with your colleagues, volunteer to help, and not shy away from opportunities that rise, because that's how you learn (by stepping away from your comfort zone). I wish I had learned more about different functions of eDiscovery.

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