It's the time of year when harbingers of autumn abound. The air is crisper, schools are back in session and football rivalries are revving up again.
Another sure sign of fall is the newly minted attorneys arriving at law offices everywhere. They've earned their degrees, accepted offers with respected firms and diligently studied for the bar exam. They've left nothing to chance.
Except for one thing: The majority of first-year associates have no idea how to interact with law firm staff. After seven years spent preparing to be attorneys, some get a one-hour human resources seminar on staff relations. Most get no training at all in this key aspect of their careers.
The legal secretary can and should be a sage and savvy ally who covers her attorney's back and lights the path to greatness. But many young lawyers, hamstrung by a lack of supervisory experience and a naive sense of hierarchy, fail to develop that vital symbiosis with their support personnel.
To be truly equipped for success, every young lawyer needs one more course. Fortunately, Legal Staff Relations 101 has no required reading, and there are no abstract principles to learn; it's about understanding how teamwork operates between attorneys and staff. Mastery of a few simple do's and don'ts will get a new lawyer off to the right start.
Do recognize the assistant's superior knowledge of procedures and leverage that knowledge. Asking a secretary for procedural advice doesn't diminish a lawyer's status; everyone knows law schools don't teach court rules and law office management. A lawyer who taps his or her assistant's store of wisdom appears smarter to superiors and makes a worthier opponent for adverse counsel.
Do be self-sufficient. A secretary assigned to work for three or four lawyers, by necessity, places the first-year at the bottom of the pecking order. Accept this. Understand that fetching coffee and locating easily accessible information are things she does for partners and senior associates. She doesn't have time to offer a first-year that level of handholding.
Don't e-mail a secretary an assignment and then appear at her desk 10 minutes later to see how it's coming along. If it's urgent, say so; if not, prepare to stand at the back of the line. Likewise, wait a few years before starting to delegate personal tasks to her. A legal secretary is a skilled professional, and, while she patiently pays bills, plans vacations and sends party invitations for her senior lawyers, she will resent doing these things for a first-year associate.
But don't be too self-sufficient. Word processing is a secretarial function, not a lawyer function. If work product is to be accurate, polished and timely, then lawyers must leave document creation to the secretary.
Microsoft Word penalizes users who treat it like a typewriter, and WordPerfect is scarcely more tolerant. The average lawyer-typed document is a mishmash of excess hard returns, superfluous tabs, stray page breaks and renegade formatting. One simple numbering change can mean an extra hour of work, and it can take even longer to repair document corruption caused by a lawyer's slipshod word processing.
However, an attorney who likes to type can do so without causing his or her secretary to work unnecessary overtime. Simply ask the secretary to create a shell document and then respect the formatting of that shell.
Don't give work to someone else's assistant. Much of a first-year's caseload consists of other lawyers' cases, and many associates seem to think this entitles them to the services of the lead attorney's assistant. This is nonsense and will annoy both of the secretaries involved. If all work stayed with lead counsel's secretary, then no first-year would need a secretary at all.
Don't mistake a legal secretary for a friend. She's a co-worker. Her life, unlike those of most first-year lawyers, is outside the office rather than in it. She likely has a family of her own and not enough spare time or emotional energy to be a personal sounding board for -- of all people -- her boss.
Do take the advice of senior lawyers -- with a grain of salt. Much of what they think they know about staff utilization is wrong. Some of them are more effective at interacting with staff than their younger colleagues, but plenty are clueless, continually shooting themselves in the foot with counterproductive work habits and knee-jerk elitism.
Do take the advice of the firm's human resources department -- but only do so with sincerity. The first time a new lawyer invites a secretary to lunch, she'll think it's a nice gesture. But if there is no second invitation, she'll know it was just an item on the HR checklist, and she'll think worse of him or her instead of better.
Don't be arrogant. Deference toward senior lawyers is an obvious requirement for success, but never forget that the true measure of a person is how he treats those who rank beneath him.
Despite that advanced degree and skyrocketing pay scale, a lawyer is still merely human. She's going to make mistakes, let things slip and commit the occasional faux pas. A secretary whose loyalty has been earned will turn on the office light for a boss who's running late, sound the alert about a forgotten e-mail attachment and correct the embarrassing gaffe in that draft brief before the big boss in the corner office sees it.
But what if that secretary has been treated as if she were a lesser being? Well, one could hope the man in the corner office has a charitable sense of humor.
The Assistant-at-Law has worked for firms large and small, in various capacities, for more than 15 years. Currently, she is a legal secretary for a Texas-based international firm. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.