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If you’re a new associate at a law firm, at some point during the first few months there, a senior attorney will tell you to “ask the legal assistant.” You may panic a little and ask yourself: “Legal assistant? Who is the legal assistant and why am I talking to her?” Legal assistants, or paralegals, are trained professionals who do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney. As the name suggests, paralegals assist attorneys in the day-to-day tasks necessary to practice law. Legal assistants can be of great help to associates, especially to those starting their careers. Unfortunately, many new associates are not familiar with what legal assistants do and receive no guidance concerning how to work with and supervise them. The types of tasks performed by a legal assistant will vary according to the practice group with which he or she works and will also vary from firm to firm. Generally, however, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise about a firm’s systems and practices as well as about legal, court, government and regulatory agencies and their rules and procedures. Legal assistants can help get things done. They can liaison with word processing, the copy center, the file department, desktop publishing, the mail room, litigation support, the supply department and myriad other firm services. They can also get things done outside of the firm. They can communicate with copy services, printers, court reporters, Fed Ex, UPS, service agents, court clerks, government employees and translators. Legal assistants can tell you who the right person is to speak to and what has to be done in order to get the result you want. Legal assistants working in a litigation-oriented practice may be asked to do the following types of tasks: � Create and maintain case files and legal dockets. � Conduct Lexis, Westlaw and Internet research. � Cite check (Shepardize), “blue book” (put cites into Blue Book format) and organize briefs and motions (and accompanying affidavits or exhibits) for filing and service. � Review and index documents, create privilege logs, prepare documents for production (redact, bates-stamp, label confidential, copy) and maintain document production files (bates stamping is a numbering system applied to documents that are produced that can later be used to identify a document and its source). � Prepare subpoenas, requests under freedom of information laws and other routine legal documents. � Prepare deposition exhibits and binders. � Prepare witness and exhibit binders for trial, arbitration or hearing. � Prepare chronologies, charts, summaries or other exhibits for use in deposition, trial, arbitration or hearing. � Review and digest testimony. In a transaction-oriented practice, legal assistants may be asked to do tasks such as the following: � Assist in the conduct of due diligence. � Prepare and file with state offices documents and certificates in connection with the formation, dissolution and merger of legal entities (including corporations, limited liability companies and partnerships). � Prepare and file documents in connection with the maintenance of legal entities (including good standing certificates, tax status certificates, etc.). � Review, proofread and redline transaction and closing documents (redline means to compare two versions of the same document and create a new document showing the differences — additions, deletions, revisions — between the old and new versions). � Prepare and maintain corporate by-laws, minutes, resolutions, stock certificates and ledgers. � Assist in the preparation and filing of documents with the Securities & Exchange Commission, including documents filed on the EDGAR system (the SEC’s electronic filing system). � Prepare and file UCC-1 financing statements and UCC-3 termination statements. � Assist in closings, including preparation and organization of closing documents and certificates, management of distributions and execution of documents, and preparation of closing binders. It is a good idea after you arrive at your firm to find out who the legal assistants in your practice area are and introduce yourself. Spend a few minutes talking to them about what they do. You should also find out who is in charge of handing out work to them and introduce yourself to that person. Talk to that person about what is appropriate to ask a legal assistant to do and how to get work assigned. This way, you will know how to get help from a legal assistant when the need arises. The most important thing to keep in mind when working with legal assistants is to treat them like the professionals they are — with respect and as a member of your team. Some associates look down on legal assistants and treat them poorly, presumably because they are not lawyers. Associates who take this approach are missing out on a tremendous resource, not to mention creating a reputation for themselves as being difficult with staff. It may sound trite, but common courtesy is the best policy. Saying “hello,” “good night,” “please,” “thank you” and “good job” will go a long way toward creating goodwill. Many legal assistants are assigned to work a particular matter throughout its existence so it is advisable to keep them in the loop. As professionals, they are interested in what is going on and need to be kept informed. Let them know about scheduling or important developments so that they can stay on top of the matter and plan accordingly. In delegating work to legal assistants, many associates fail to remember a key point — that the associates are ultimately responsible for the work product. To get the “right” work product, an associate needs to think things through, to plan and to properly supervise the legal assistant. When you give work to a legal assistant, give clear instructions about what it is that you want him to do. To do this, you have to spend time thinking about the project beforehand. Map out what you want done and how you want it done. Nothing can complicate the associate/legal assistant working relationship more than a change in direction mid-project or a serious misunderstanding regarding the assignment. In discussing the assignment with the legal assistant, listen to advice he or she may have concerning how the firm or the partner in charge likes the particular task to be done. For example, a particular partner likes the deposition outline and exhibits to look a certain way. Ignoring such advice may not only frustrate the legal assistant but may also require the project to be redone to conform to the partner’s expectations or the firm’s standards. Throughout any long-term assignment, check in with the legal assistant to see how the work is progressing. Don’t be a nudge and constantly hover, but ask enough questions (and review preliminary work product) so that you can gauge how it is going and whether the project is on track. Be available and amenable to answer questions the legal assistant might have and to make judgment calls that have to be made. Staying involved in the project will help to insure that the ultimate work product will be what you need. Discuss the deadline with the legal assistant. Simply telling him or her, “I need it tomorrow” — even if that is when you really need it — will not go over well. Just as associates want partners to be sensitive to their other work and personal commitments, associates need to remember that legal assistants are often juggling multiple matters. Do not assume that the legal assistant can drop everything to work on your project or that she can work late or come in on the weekend. Talk to the legal assistant about the project, what else is on her plate and when she thinks she can get your work done. If there is a conflict between your project and another lawyer’s project, talk to that lawyer and see if you can help work it out — don’t leave the legal assistant in the untenable position of having to set the priorities. In setting the deadline, build in enough time for you to review the final work product before it goes to the partner, the buyer/seller, the court, etc. If you only get the legal assistant’s work minutes before the deadline and something is wrong, there will not be enough time to fix it. Finally, if something does go wrong, remain levelheaded and be fair. Do not yell and scream at the legal assistant or blame him in front of the partner. Doing this will not fix the problem but it will alienate the legal assistant. After the mistake has been corrected, calmly discuss what happened to try to figure out how the error came about. Were your instructions clear? Was there a miscommunication? If you determine that the legal assistant did not perform as expected, give him appropriate feedback. You should also give feedback to the legal assistant’s supervisor. Catherine A. Duke is legal director of the labor and employment department at Proskauer Rose in New York City.

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