Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Continuing Importance of the "No Free Shot Rule!"

When I was practicing law, I was known for having a "kind ear" and an "open door." As a result, new attorneys often found their way to my office for advice and consolation after their written work was ripped apart  (now I guess they would say "disrespected") by a supervising attorney. My advice consisted of two simple questions:
  • Were the changes made because you were wrong (i.e., you misinterpreted  the facts or applied the law incorrectly)?  If yes, then go back and figure out where you were wrong and go talk to the supervising attorney. Own up!
  • Were the changes made because the supervising attorney was more knowledgeable about this particular client (i.e., given the choice of two or more options, does one option work better simply because this attorney knows the history of the client and its needs).  If yes, talk with the supervising attorney and learn how a particular client's needs play a role in the application of law. 
After going through the comments and changes one of these "forgivable" or at least "survivable" options usually became evident to the writer.

The third reason was often a rite of passage. Depending on undergraduate and law school experiences, the law firm environment may have been the first pay attention to detail environment many were asked to function in. As a result, all kinds of preventable mistakes were made. Simple things along the lines of mis-numbered lists, client names misspelled, improper or incorrect citations, spacing errors, incorrectly tracked language, etc. It was often hard for the new attorney to understand why these were so damaging. Fair or unfair, "perception is everything" I would tell them. Then I would explain my "No Free Shot" rule. (Odd that I would pick this analogy as I am not a huge basketball fan other than of the Harlem Globetrotters, but alas I did and I am now stuck with it.)
Meadowlark Lemon
Meadowlark Lemon 1932-2015

Under my "No Free Shot" rule, the submitted work should be flawless when it comes to what can be seen as lazy and sloppy mistakes.  If you add or delete text into a document make sure the language tracks (i.e., the added or deleted text didn't affect pagination or that the internal numbering system still tracks). If  you decide not to send a client a document make sure you change the list on the email or cover letter. Make sure your citations are correct, especially pin point cites because otherwise you are wasting another lawyer's time! And make sure the client's name is spelled correctly (i.e., Inc., Co., and on) and get titles correct!

If your work contains these kinds of avoidable errors, then you have just given the reader the impression that you don't care enough to take the time to get them right or you are simply intellectually sloppy. If the reader can't trust you with simple stuff, how can she or he trust your legal analysis? If you don't pay attention to the details, you have just given someone a "Free Shot" to dismiss the work on its presentation rather than on its merits.

Having just completed a large editing project, I can attest that the underlying premise of the "No Free Shot" rule still exists. As an editor, I had to continually remind myself to pay attention to the content rather than the annoying errors in some of the work. In some cases it was hard to do so. You start to look for the next error simply because you are now looking to fix things rather than paying attention to the message in the content. In the end, I learned about how to better structure the process so if I am ever asked to edit a large scale work again I will have a better system in place.

The end message: I will still work the "No Free Shot"into my conversations with my students when they find their way to my office.

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