Inexperienced associates are often afraid to admit they do not understand what is expected of them and are even more afraid to ask uninformed or “stupid” questions. Others are so eager to get working on it that they neglect to back up and think about what is being said. Worse, they make assumptions about what the partner wants them to do. The lack of understanding about an assignment results in wasted time as misdirected hours are written down or off and completion of the assignment is delayed.

Though you can say that it’s on the associate to get clarification and you wouldn’t be wrong, if these dynamics are playing out, it’s also on the partner to elicit questions, make the expectations crystal clear, and more importantly make him or herself approachable enough for the associate to feel comfortable asking questions about it without fearing looking foolish.

Clarity is the pathway to solid results.

Effectively setting expectations is a critical part of successfully leading and managing your associates, as well as developing a culture of accountability. Unclear expectations are one of the top sources of frustration for associates. Associates with clear goals are more engaged. Engaged associates are happier, and happy associates stick around longer.

The benefits of setting expectations with your associates are that doing so:

  1. Provides clarity for both the associate and you and gets everyone on the same page and saves valuable time for all involved 
  2. Establishes a baseline of measurement for future performance
  3. Enhances communication
  4. Empowers your associates to act more freely because they have operating guidelines and structure
  5. Creates a reference point when expectations are not met
  6. Provides a way to hold associates accountable

Types of expectations

Expectations fall into 2 main areas:

  • Performance expectations – This type concerns the results and outcomes that need to be achieved. Ex: quality of the work product, billable hours requirement, attorney’s relevant legal knowledge and ability to apply that knowledge effectively, etc. 
  • Behavioral expectations – These relate to the expected values, behaviors and attitudes that are required in the role. Ex: behaving with respect to others (not raising voice or using derogatory language), being punctual, coming to every meeting well prepared and ready to take notes, etc.

The How

Ready to set clear expectations for your people? Here is how: 

  1. Make sure your expectations are clear and realistic, and can actually be articulated

A good set of expectations is not abstract such as “keep me in the loop”. Rather, it is clear and well-defined, like “I would like you to email me a short status update by every Friday” or “I want you to “cc” me on every email in the Smith case.” Unambiguous actions or behavior with specific deadlines.

Or instead of “bring your hours up” – “bill at least 1,900 hours by December 31”. Or instead of “get out there more” – “attend one networking event each month”. Instead of “treat the staff better” – “do not raise your voice or express impatience. And be sure to regularly thank them.”

Examples of things to clarify on assignments might include:

  • Purpose
  • Major tasks and sequencing; immediate “To Do’s”
  • Work product
  • Due date, priority level
  • Interim reporting and review checkpoints
  • Time estimate and limitations
  • Budgetary instructions
  • Special timekeeping, billing procedures
  • Sources for information, firm resources
  • Authority to delegate to legal assistant
  • Directed contact with client, staff, outside advisors
  1. Communicate with no room for confusion.

Popping your head in an associate’s door on your way out to lunch is not an appropriate way to communicate expectations. Better to put them in writing so there are no questions later on. An email or one-pager works well here. Or have a one-on-one conversation and ask them paraphrase back to you so you can clarify if they misunderstood. 

  • “Just so I’m clear that I’ve communicated this to you accurately, please tell me what you are understanding I’m asking”.
  1. Invite them to ask what questions they may have and support they need from you.

Even if you don’t need to be invited to ask questions if something is unclear, not all personality styles look at it that way. Examples: 

  • “What’s unclear? There are no stupid questions. I want to make sure I’ve explained it clearly. If you think of a question later, don’t guess – just ask me.”

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  • Are the Consequences Clear? As an overarching point, which won’t necessarily apply to every situation, you want to think about what are the consequences when your expectations are not met. Are you clear about them? Or how can you ensure that you express that to your associates?
  • Am I Making Assumptions or Judgments? Assumptions and judgments are your biggest enemies when it comes to setting clear expectations. And we’ve all been guilty of making them: “They should know this;”  “I never needed someone to spell x, y or z out for me;” or “I shouldn’t need to have to hold their hand through this.” But think about who this type of thinking hurts – well, everyone! So next time you catch yourself thinking that, ask yourself the following question: “What’s more important to me: to be right or to have the results that I want?” And if it’s the results that you are after, let go of the judgments and assumptions and focus on clarity. 
  • What’s My Role? When you see that your expectations of others are not being met, do what the best leaders do and point a finger at yourself first. Own your communication with them about it. What could you have done better? Did you communicate your expectations clearly enough? 

Bottom line: Be clear about what you want your people to accomplish. And don’t leave it at a “one-and-done” conversation. Great managers don’t just tell associates what’s expected of them and leave it at that; instead, they frequently talk with associates about their responsibilities and progress. They don’t save those critical conversations for the once-a-year performance reviews.