update: how can I help an employee who has no attention to detail?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer wondering how to help an employee with no attention to detail? Here’s the update.

Happy to update everyone! And sorry that I couldn’t engage in real time with the comments – I’m in Australia, so the time didn’t work out.

One thing I should have clarified in my question is that while I supervise Jessie on some (but not all) of her work, I don’t have firing or even discipline powers over Jessie.

I think your response really hit home to me how serious it was. I didn’t want to admit it, as we are friendly.

So, I tried to adopt both your recommendations and some of the commenters’. First, I mentioned this incident with the managing partner, who does have discipline and firing powers. She said they’d take it on, but I am not subject to what, if anything, they decide to do.  

In my experience, the managing partner has in the past failed to be explicit and direct about performance issues and the seriousness of them.

So I also sat Jessie down and said this wasn’t OK, it’s a recurring issue with her, and it needs to be fixed for her to be a good lawyer, and that I wanted to help her. I talked about the seriousness of it and how it can affect her reputation, and if she can’t improve then law might not be for her. We decided on a couple of things – she’d assume the client was lying until she checked there were documents backing them up (and would mark any facts that didn’t have documents backing them up in her work), and we’d go through her work together and I’d show her how I check things, which she can learn to apply my checks to her own work.

Since then, we’ve sat down together about once a week, I check a substantive piece of her work and I explain what I’m doing and what I think when I check for accuracy. I don’t have time to do it on everything, but I have noticed a slight improvement, especially with the easier stuff to fix (spelling and typos).

With the evidence, we had a recent matter where a client said something, she put it in a draft, but we didn’t have documents to back it up. I asked her if everything was supported, she realised it wasn’t and apologised for not marking it – she seemed to understand the seriousness of it this time.

I’m slightly hopeful she can improve, but I’ve resolved, especially with your help, to be open and honest with the managing partner about issues I see and to keep the partner in the loop, so they can take action as they see fit. 

Thank you so much for answering my question, it really helped me both practically, and to clarify a lot of things in my head.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago

    You have the patience of a saint, OP!

    Is the managing partner aware of how much work you’re doing with Jessie?

    1. LawBee

      Honestly, though – this is a level of supervision that I think most new law grads would welcome. Law is SO WEIRD in that you go through three years of school, most of it is irrelevant, take a test on stuff you learned three years ago and haven’t touched since, and then start an incredibly high-stakes job with almost zero practical experience and little direct supervision – until something goes horribly awry.

      I am firmly on team Supervise The New Hires and Banish Law School.

      1. Janie

        I think keeping the first year of law school makes sense, so that you have the fundamentals. 2L and 3L year should just be practical stuff, though, like learning how to create an exhibit list or draft a demurrer.

          1. NotAnotherManager!

            I have to admit, I’m kind of appalled at the number of people who don’t know how to make an exhibit list. It is literally a basic index of the documents you may want to proffer at trial. For some reason, the entry-level paralegals seem to grasp this concept better than the entry-level attorneys – I can’t figure out if the latter are trying to make it harder than it is, but really, it’s just number, title, date, maybe a witness column, and a place to note whether/when it was entered. And you can do this in the document database programs now with little fuss.

        1. NotAnotherManager!

          The attorney professional development team where I work reports up to the same executive that I do, and we often discuss the need to scrap the entire 3L and do something useful with it – practicum in the area of law in which the student is interested, internship, project-based learning – plus project management, people management, and business development electives. We get a lot of very, very smart people as first years with no idea how to practice.

      2. Green

        I’m all for guidance (and observe once before doing, etc.) on complex matters, but a lot of lawyers are able to master the basics (cite your sources for your facts) by being told it once. It sounds like the problems have been repeatedly been explained to the new lawyer and it’s…. not sinking in.

      3. SavannahMiranda

        Yep, law school is a poor representation of what legal practice is actually like. What I am flummoxed by is how ‘Jessie’ even made it through law school without being able to read, reason, and follow through. Is that not what law school fundamentally is – close reading, detailed reasoning, and supported argumentation? Over and over again, on deadline, under pressure, verbally and in writing, in different areas of the law, and with red herrings? How did she write briefs, speak in class, or write final exams?

        I am a paralegal. I cannot provide the legal reasoning and supported argumentation. But you can damn well bet my close reading is on point. My entire job is attention to detail at a minute level, conforming language, documents, attachments, annexes, and exhibits to the prevailing argument or direction the attorney is taking, triple checking it, and changing it when the attorney changes.

        Based on what the LW has described, this attorney could not perform even my job. Which isn’t unusual when it’s just a question of arcane forms or procedures. I get paid to be the forms and procedures expert, but that does not require legal reasoning. Forms and procedure are training, not education. I can train attorneys in forms and procedures all day long. It’s a transferable skill set.

        What Jessie is exhibiting isn’t a question of skill set. This sounds like fundamental inability to perform at even a paralegal level of reading, reasoning, and follow through. That’s kind of horrifying and I can understand why the LW wrote in. It would be draining to deal with this as a senior associate, difficult to navigate how to accurately reflect it upwards to the partners while still mentoring and training as senior associates are supposed to, as well as take a huge bite out of the LW’s own billable hours.

        Holy emotional labor, batman.

        1. selena81

          I wonder if maybe the employee has mild autism: that can lead someone to do much better in a structured classroom environment (where all the questions are designed to ‘make sense’ wrt the subjects being taught) than in the chaotic real world. And it could explain her inclination to ‘take people at their word’.

          If that is what’s going on than the ‘assume everyone is lying’ approach is probably a good way to help her: giving her a constant reminder to look at facts instead of interpretations.

          1. WomanFromItaly

            As someone with The Disorder Formerly Known As Asperger’s, I’m going to take offense both to incompetence being attributed to autism for no reason (there is nothing in the letter from OP to suggest autism. Seriously, it is not ok to go “this person can’t do the thing?” “Must be autistic!) Also ,just saying, lack of attention to detail is not exactly a problem most people on the spectrum have. In addition, we have been specifically asked not to jump to diagnosing people.

  2. Ladybird

    I think it is really kind of you to take an active role in reviewing her work and helping her improve. It sounds like she is making an effort and hopefully she continues to get better.

  3. OlympiasEpiriot

    Very interesting update. Thank you for writing in.

    I hope she realises what a gift you are giving her with this honesty and tutoring.

  4. Just Employed Here

    This is really kind of you, OP, and it sounds as if she’s doing her best to improve.

    That said, I don’t have the feeling she’s really cut out for this work. She’s getting this much support, and it’s only lead to a slight improvement… I hope I’m wrong, though.

    1. Busy

      So, I took a lot of law courses. I also have a degree heavy on research in general. I don’t understand how she made it through law school without having these skills? When you are doing research, you need to cite sources. The same goes for these types of briefings and legal filings. Like I made a claim and here is how I back that up. But that is what she seems to be failing on the most! I don’t know how she got through school without this hindering her much early on. I mean some people aren’t good researchers. That is fine. But my point here is that generally at some point during college classes that should be heavy on this type of work, it should show itself very quickly. I feel bad that this poor woman may have wasted a ton of money on a career that doesn’t fit her.

      But maybe that is the rub? Maybe she is suited, but is having one of those periods where she isn’t understanding how those skills need to transfer over into real world. Maybe getting her to think that every time she does something, it is a research project. I know the OP says she had her frame it like the person is always guilty until proven innocent, but maybe this take on it will be more relateable to her?

      1. Kelly AF

        Well, the OP says he is in Australia. I don’t think they do post-Bachelors law school there (as a requirement for practicing law, I mean — I’m sure they have it) the way we do in the US. I think you can practice law in Australia with just a Bachelor’s degree.

        I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong!

        1. Busy

          That may be. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that, either. But you won’t get through a 101 class if you lack this skill. It would be like graduating a civil engineer who doesn’t understand math or a surgeon who passes out the first time they see blood. It is a fundamental competency needed to do this type of work. If a person can pass higher education in a field of law and lacks this competency, then something has gone horribly wrong. And while colleges can in themselves be very lacking in real world applications to the subjects they teach, I some how doubt something like this is possible. And if it is, that is very unfair towards the people wasting their time pursuing it.

          It is why I am really feeling like maybe she just needs a different perspective on what she is doing that she can relate to. Something just seems so amiss. I feel terrible for this woman!

        2. Ozpeep

          Hello,

          Australian lawyer here. While it is “just” a bachelor’s degree (I assume that you did not mean anything by that) , a law degree in Australia is a 4 year degree, usually 5.5/6 since most will do a double degree e.g. law/economics.

          The law degree is focused on research and writing skills from the start and also teaches the law. Research skills are drummed into us since the law is always changing and the facts may bring up a niche case.

          I don’t think Australian law degrees are less technical than American law degrees, but since we’re not as steeped in tradition (although some Sydney universities would say otherwise) our degree may have set her up for success here even more than an American degree due to the focus on practical skills so there is really no excuse for her not to have these skills.

          1. NotAnotherManager!

            I would assume that the “just” comment is that a bachelor’s degree in the US would not qualify the vast majority of people to practice law. (There are a few states that still allow apprenticeships and for apprentices to sit for the bar, but they are very rare.) A double degree may also not be as rigorous in the US – many schools offer advanced students an opportunity to do more than one degree simultaneously within the four-year under graduate program, and advanced students can even do their bachelor’s and master’s degrees within a 5-year program.

            Law school is really overhyped in the US. It is obscenely expensive and usually a cash cow for the university offering the program, and, if you want to do large-firm law (BigLaw, in the US), you pretty much have to go to one of the most competitive, selective, and expensive schools to be considered for a position fresh out of law school. You have to complete a bachelor’s degree prior to applying to law school (another 3 years of full-time study, longer if you go part-time). And then you go for three years and few people come out with the actual skills to practice.

          2. Kelly AF

            Yes, sorry! I did not mean “just” in a derogatory sense. I should be more careful with my language in the future. I was intending to contrast Australian law education with American and note that a separate, post-bachelor’s degree was not necessary to practice law there (at least in my understanding).

            1. Armchair Expert

              This is correct, but it’s also worth knowing that a bachelor’s degree in Australia tends to be more specialised – from what I understand of the US system, that is. So we may only do one four year degree, but it’s the equivalent of your law school degree: it’s entirely focused on the law, with both theoretical and practical subjects, rather than being a broader ‘foundational’ degree, so to speak. So we don’t come out of our bachelor of laws at the same stage as you come out of your original bachelor’s degree. We also do a practical component as well before being admitted to the Bar, which varies from state to state but includes an internship. As another Australian attorney, I’m just as baffled how this woman got admitted as you are.

      2. Noah

        In the U.S., law school classes are graded primarily based on exams where you need to be able to apply legal concepts, but which lack the research element that requires citing sources. The only bar exam I know of that has anything close to that kind of requirement is California.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      I agree. OP is very kind to invest this time in Jessie. For OP’s own sanity and business reputation, I would encourage OP to set a cut-off date for themselves—I’d suggest 90 days (e.g., if “X benchmarks aren’t met by Y months, OP takes a big step back from trying to coach Jessie to succeed”).

  5. ScatterBrained

    As someone who is a bit scattered and has little attention to detail by nature, I have a few tricks I’ve learned to help alleviate most of my thoughtless mistakes. The #1 thing is to walk away from something when I think I’m “done”. Then come back later (usual a day later) to review it again before sending it on. Reviewing/rereading just after I write something doesn’t work because my brain just runs on with what it “knows” I wrote. If I wait a while I’m actually reading it and will catch lots of things that I would’ve missed before. This means I have to alter my deadlines. So, if Sally needs something by 3pm on Thursday, I have to finish it Wednesday morning, so I have to to review and revise it on Thursday before sending it.

    1. irene adler

      I do something similar.
      It really helps catch errors.
      I also double check my corrections to be sure I fixed things correctly.

      1. Sally

        I learned another tip that has been helpful to me: If I’m checking the accuracy of a lot of terms/names that are not in the dictionary or if I’m checking the accuracy of numbers, I read through the document backwards (starting at the end and reading right-to- left.

  6. NewJobWendy

    Whether she’s cut out for the work or not, she’ll benefit from the effort you’re investing in her now. It sounds like you are going way above and beyond, and as someone who struggled in my early career, I am appreciative of your effort. I hope she is too!

  7. Green

    I think you probably do need to put a limit on how long you’re willing to help and coach her on really basic legal thought processes.

    Law can be really sophisticated and complex, but these issues are so rudimentary and basic that I would question her judgment and ability to do the higher-level work when the basics seem to be missing. As long as you have energy and patience to expend, that’s fine, but at some point zapping your energy to help cover up a problem is more harm than good.

  8. ParalegalPrincess

    I didn’t scroll through the comments on the original posting, but I’m confused as to why there’s no legal assistant or paralegal who proofreads those documents before they’re submitted to the senior attorney? I don’t know about AUS law, but in the U.S if you make those minor mistakes on documents submitted to court, the case can be immediately dismissed due to clerical errors and that reflects entirely on the law practice. It is nice to hear that the OP is patient and wants this junior attorney to do well, but the tasks that Jessie continually messed up would get a paralegal or legal assistant dismissed or fired.

    1. Noah

      In the U.S., a case cannot be dismissed for typos or even getting parties’ names wrong. Failing to cite to evidence on a dipositive motion could get a case dismissed, but this person’s work is being edited probably by at least two people before it is filed. Not every law firm uses non-lawyer staff for proofreading and cite-checking.

      1. NotAnotherManager!

        I have several partners who think that the use of paralegals for proofreading and cite-checking is unnecessarily padding their client’s bills and that someone getting paid what a junior associate it should be able to do things like spelling the client’s name right and inserting correct information into the document themselves.

        I have others who consider their paralegals vital to the process and prefer a second set of eyes on things to ensure they’re in as good a shape as they possibly can be. In the extreme, some of these folks trust their experienced paralegals more than the junior associates.

  9. paralegal

    i work at a biglaw firm, so possibly my standards are stupidly high, but i wish i could make this many mistakes and keep my job, lol. but seriously, paras/secretaries at my firm are explicitly expected to *not* need this type of supervision unless we are learning something new. so this is really bizarre to me. i do sincerely wish you both the best and it’s very kind of you to take this time with her, and i hope it isn’t for naught.

    1. NotAnotherManager!

      Seriously. I have fired people for less than what was described of Jessie’s work in the original. Law (at least in the US) can be pedantic and we specifically hire for strong attention to detail. The evidentiary mistakes alone made my skin crawl.

  10. Nancy Mitford

    How different is the Australian legal system from America’s legal system? Does the advice, from Alison and from the commenters, change based on where you’re coming from?

  11. Seeking Second Childhood

    The original comments went on such tangents I got lost. Apologies if this was addressed there.
    Since you two are friendly, do keep an ear open for her chatting about late nights. If she had college habits of late-night TV shows and socializing into the wee hours, and hasn’t been getting enough sleep, that alone can be brutal for ongoing performance.
    Good luck to you both!

  12. Half-Caf Latte

    OP, you sound really kind.

    I have two suggestions for you: First, keep track of how much time you are spending coaching/correcting/reviewing Jessie/her work. If she’s improving, the time required should decrease, which you can use to monitor performance in a concrete way. It may also help you justify any productivity lapses on your end to your managing partner: ie, I spend X hours a week coaching Jessie, which means it took longer to get to Y.

    Second, consider trying a thought experiment: If you weren’t friendly with Jessie, and found her annoying, how much time would you be willing to dedicate to your efforts? You don’t have hiring/firing powers, so what happens if your firm hires Danny and Dave, who require the same amount of support? It seems obvious that you can’t dedicate a significant portion of your time x3 employees, but a manager’s viewpoint may be more of “well OP was happy to do this with Jessie, why not also with Danny and Dave?”

    I like the framing of – what would I do for someone I didn’t like, because it helps me understand what might be fair support and what might be over the line.

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