Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Negotiating Deadlines & Prioritizing Work – Set Students Up for Success

Once law students make their way to a law firm or legal department job, they will have to balance what is likely to be a bigger workload than that as a student.  They will have many competing demands on their time, likely from many competing sources (partners, managers, other associates, or clients).  I think our students should leave law school with communication skills that will help them negotiate deadlines for projects so that they can successfully navigate the many demands on their time.  All too often, I see students (and even law school staff) who take on more than they should and work under the mistaken impression that everything needs to be done IMMEDIATELY.  That is a recipe for disaster (either personally or professionally – or both) and will eventually lead to burn-out.  Having the communication and social skills necessary to courteously negotiate deadlines so that work can be properly prioritized is important. 

A colleague of mine who teaches legal writing to the first year students has an interesting assignment designed to help students realize that they will face this issue and helps them develop some skills to succeed.  At some point during the first semester, after the students have been assigned their respective sides to represent in a legal matter, he sends them an email that is meant to be from their client.  The students do not know when (what day, what time of day, what else might be going on) they will get the email.  They are taught that they need to respond within 24 hours with a well thought out and researched response.  I think the assignment is great for a couple of reasons.  First, it teaches them that they do not have to respond to an email immediately, unless they want to manage their client’s expectations with a quick email noting they’d received it and need to do some research in order to answer the questions presented.  Many of our students entering the working world will struggle with work-life balance since it is so easy to be electronically wired in all the time.  Next, the assignment causes them to have to prioritize whatever else they might need to get done during that 24-hour time period.  Finally, it emphasizes taking the time to do some research and provide a reasoned and professional response to an email from a client.  The students are graded on meeting the deadline, the content of their email as far as correctly researching and answering the question, and the tone/demeanor of the email (do they come across as professional).

How else can we help our students learn these skills?  Do you have any interesting examples from your courses?



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