2014.21: How to Ask for Advice


Sarah “Bennett’s Brain Emeritus” Wood of the Harris County PD’s Office is the queen of all things mentorly. After the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association had tried for years to create a functioning mentorship program it was Sarah who created the Second-Chair Program, which has been cranking out better-trained criminal-defense lawyers for at least six years. Sarah also runs the PD’s internship program and the Future Appointed Counsel Training Program (FACT), which connects Gideon’s Promise-trained young lawyers with experienced mentors for a two-year stint.

One component of the Harris County criminal bar’s mentorship regimen is monthly brainstorming sessions, also organized by Sarah. We’ll gather in the ready room on the seventh floor of the courthouse at lunchtime, HCCLA will order in food, and people will share their case issues and ask for advice from more-experienced lawyers.

These sessions are often frustrating for the more-experienced lawyers. Having given some thought to what makes them so, I’ve got some advice to offer those seeking advice.

First, and most importantly, before you ask for advice do whatever legal research you can yourself. You’d better have spent some time on the problem before bringing it to mentors. Not doing so is lazy and disrespectful—if your mentors thought your time was more valuable than theirs, you would be the mentors and they would be the proteges. If you haven’t already done a bunch of online research, their advice is probably going to be “get back with us after you’ve spent some time on Westlaw” or Lexis or CaseMaker (free to Texas lawyers through the State Bar) or even Google Scholar.

Second, before you ask for advice know your facts inside and out. Be ready to answer questions about them. Not knowing your facts wastes your mentors’ time as well. How are we supposed to help you if you can’t tell us who the car was registered to?

Third, when you ask for advice, explain what you think the problem is (“how do I suppress the dope?”). Then explain what work you’ve already done to find the answer (“I searched CaseMaker for cases involving searches of personal property incident to arrest post-Arizona v. Gant“). Then—and only then—explain the facts.

Inexperienced lawyers usually turn this sequence around backwards, and start explaining the facts first. This is a cultural impulse, I think: when we are tested in school our teachers give us the fact pattern first and then ask questions about it. But our teachers know what facts are relevant.

If you are not the one doing the testing, giving the facts first is terribly inefficient because you don’t necessarily know what facts are important and the people who are trying to help you have no idea what facts to listen for. If you put the facts first you will waste your mentors’ time with rabbit trails, and you will leave things out so that they will have to circle back after you’ve finally gotten to your explanation of what you think the problem is.

If you start with the problem, when you get to the facts the mentors can discard those that are irrelevant and can ask pointed questions to flesh out those that you have omitted. They can also find other defenses that you haven’t thought of—often younger lawyers will fail to spot the issues—but that’s secondary.

The same rule applies for potential clients asking lawyers for help: explain the problem (or what you think it is) first, then explain the facts that you think are important.

If you’re doing this in writing, more paragraph breaks are better than fewer. It is harder to extract information from run-on paragraphs than from bullet points. If you’re doing it orally, slow down for the same reason.

Because the easier you make it to help you, the more people will be able—and want—to help you.


12 responses to “2014.21: How to Ask for Advice”

  1. Thank you for this post. As a young attorney constantly pestering more experienced attorneys with questions, I always lead with the facts and they always respond by instructing me about the law, then follow with a quiz about the facts I didn’t realize were important. You’ve saved them a lot of time with this advice.

  2. The overarching need for mentoring was recently brought up by a judge in a monthly meeting of the criminal law section of my bar association. These meetings were just restarted after years of inactivity, so hopefully we can establish some momentum. There has been much talk and little action on mentoring over the years. So now I have a concrete example of a program that works. Thanks.

  3. You forgot the part about actually taking the advice. Nothing is more aggravating for me than spending a half an hour with a divorce lawyer who is “handling” a criminal case, sharing pleadings and ideas, and then seeing that person pleading his client on the nose the next week without having done any work.

  4. Mark, thank you for another useful & well-written post. Drives me crazy when I read help-request emails from colleagues that begin, “I apologize in advance for this being so long, but here goes.” After first scrolling down 100 yards or so in search of “the problem,” I have to then scroll back up to the top before I can even begin slogging through the facts.

  5. Raymond’s essay is a diva’s guide to dealing with divas. It may be a good guide for interacting with some people, but those people deserve approximately the same regard as pop stars demanding that no one look them in the eye. That some universally good advice is interspersed with the rest does not change the essay’s essential character.

    Also, his advice for how to present questions diametrically opposes yours.

    All that aside, you hint at a question I’ve pondered before (from both sides): how much more valuable is the mentor’s time? If, say, ten hours of mentee research can avoid a ten second question (or vice versa), should he ask or not? Likely everyone would agree that some time ratio exists which definitely justifies asking, but what is that ratio?

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