“Here is the file. Be sure to get me a breakdown by 4 p.m.” That’s it. That was the assignment, and I had no idea what it meant. Before I could even think of a question, my boss was out of my office and into his, closing the door firmly behind him. It remained closed. I checked the phones, but he’d turned on his do-not-disturb function. It was 1:15 p.m.
I was a new attorney, but not completely new. I had been practicing for about three years and had never been asked for a “breakdown” of a file. Did he want an analysis of liability? An analysis of damages? Who was our client? Gosh, are we the plaintiff? Is this even a lawsuit?
I stared at two giant redwelds stuffed with papers, realizing I’d just received the infamous “vague assignment.” I had heard about this beast in law school and I’d seen it on television. In the “The Bottle Deposit” episode of “Seinfeld,” George Costanza is given a vague assignment when he fails to follow his boss into the men’s room, “You’ve got to go downtown, George. It’s all downtown.” In season five’s “Michael Scott Paper Company” episode of “The Office,” Jim Halpert gets a vague assignment from his new boss, who asks him to prepare “a rundown of all his clients.”
Naturally, I looked around for signs this might be some sort of “Candid Camera” show. Nothing. It was now 2:05 p.m. The boss’s door remained closed, and his phone remained off limits.
Figuring out the nature of the “vague assignment” may seem impossible—a monumental test. Do you ask your boss? Will you look foolish? Should you know what he meant? These are natural questions. Luckily, I have a step-by-step plan for dealing with this common problem.
- After you are finished panicking, check to see if your boss is available. There is nothing wrong with asking for clarification on an assignment. Do not be timid. Be honest.
- If your boss is not available, panic again.
- After you are finished with your second round of panicking, go see your boss’s paralegal or assistant. They should be able to help you decipher the code.
- If the paralegal or assistant is unavailable, quit.
- If you did not quit, go ask a colleague, coworker or building security guard. Anyone.
- If none of the above work and you cannot find an answer, simply do the work. I realize this sounds preposterous. However, just prepare a “breakdown” of some kind and get it to your boss by the deadline. One of two things will happen: (a) your boss will be pleased with the work, or (b) your boss will ask you what the hell you’ve prepared. If (b) happens, apologize and explain that what you prepared was consistent with “breakdowns” you prepared at your last job.
- If you get to 7 (b), start getting your resume together. (Joking.) (Kind of.)
I may not know what I’m talking about, but I think you understand ….
William Melater, or “Bill” to his close friends, is a young associate attorney working at a firm focused on commercial litigation and transactional work. A self-described legal hunter and gatherer, Bill has accumulated a plethora of legal certificates and diplomas—all of which have been appropriately framed and hung behind his desk. Bill has a distaste for emails,suspenders, fake tans, paralegals who cry, sea urchins and attorneys who repeat the phrase “this is my bottom-line offer.” When irked, Bill blogs about his experiences at Attorney at Work.
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