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The typical new associates’ first few days are spent in office training of some sort. After that, though, it’s every associate for himself. Or is it? The law firm knows that there is a learning curve, especially in the first year, and provides help to navigate through it all. This help comes in the form of the associate’s secretary, paralegal and general office staff. Before his or her law school diploma is even hung on the wall, the new associate will already have a number of assignments waiting to be accomplished, not to mention the day-to-day office administration tasks that are a must. Barely a week into the job, the new associate can feel as if she has worked for a month. Many first-year associates walk out of their law firm the Friday of their first week feeling a bit overwhelmed and realizing that law school did nothing to prepare them for the day-to-day practice of law. There are time sheets to fill out, documents to be organized and reviewed, people wanting to see a “good draft” of a motion or pleading, meetings to attend, clients to keep happy and partners to answer to. Don’t forget that lawyers are expected to be able to have a handle on all of this for each matter. The key to getting all of this accomplished and surviving the first year rests with the associate’s ability to learn how to take advantage of the skill and experience of the legal support staff. Most new associates have never been in the position of being the boss in a place like a law firm. The sooner associates learn how to work effectively with legal assistants-i.e., both secretaries and paralegals-as well as other office staff, the smoother their first year will go. But what are these legal assistants really there for? How can they be used effectively and efficiently? Learning how best to utilize legal assistants can ease the stress of an associate navigating the choppy, but exciting, waters of that first year. For many first-year associates, downtime between projects and the wait for feedback can be used to their advantage. Why not make a wise choice to use this time to learn the office as well as the law? By questioning the legal assistants as much as possible about office procedures and firm history, a new associate increases his knowledge base, efficiency and value to the firm. Relying on legal assistants A diploma on the wall does not mean that a young associate knows more about the practice of law than the legal assistants, many of whom began working in a legal environment long before the first-year had even contemplated becoming a lawyer. Although legal assistants look to the associates and partners they work with for direction, they are great resources and guides through an attorney’s first few years. In fact, a legal assistant can be essential in helping associates to survive even the roughest of storms. Simply put, legal assistants know how the office works. If the new associate does not understand the legal assistant’s job, how can he or she communicate effectively or get the job done when in the office alone on a weekend? Throughout the first year, associates should take the time to learn how the copier and fax machine work, whom to contact for document preparation and how to run the phone system. Once an associate has the basic knowledge of the general workings of the office, he or she can survive a day alone. More importantly, as the associate begins moving through the ranks, there will be a practical understanding of what those working in the office can accomplish and a better ability to convey realistic expectations to clients. Legal assistants in most offices work for more than one attorney, so take the time to talk to those attorneys about how they utilize the legal assistant and the type of things that are taboo. Recognize that the legal assistants in the office are an important resource, one that requires skill and knowledge to use effectively. For example, a good secretary does much more than type or answer the phone, making them indispensable when time is tight on a closing. The secretary might organize and index documents, draft letters and certain routine documents, and be an objective eye on those documents already drafted. The secretary will be the person in the know on how other attorneys like to have memos done or how to get documents filed at the courthouse. By doing these types of jobs, a secretary frees up the paralegal to run information searches, prepare closing checklists, conduct lien searches or put together exhibits for motions or deal documents. Keep in mind, however, that every associate should know how to do the task assigned. No matter how knowledgeable or experienced a legal assistant may be, the rules of professional conduct do not allow legal assistants to practice law and make legally strategic decisions. While legal assistants are available to help, pitch in and identify broad issues, ultimately the associate must make the final call. One thing a new associate may find helpful is to take the time to sit down with the legal assistants he or she works with regularly and discuss expectations and working styles. This will give both the new associate and legal assistant a chance to mark the parameters of the relationship and build a team where everyone knows the expectations. This team-building exercise will also help both parties have a better understanding of the ordinary goals when handing out assignments and starting on new matters. Assigning work For example, a new associate may not have the proper expectations of a legal assistant or an understanding of how to assign certain tasks. Together, the new associate and legal assistant can develop a method and manner of assigning and working through tasks that gets the job done efficiently and effectively the first time, every time. The overall goal should be that the associate and the legal assistants effectively communicate regarding duties, assignments and priorities. First-year associates can earn big points by taking the time to discuss their caseloads with their legal assistants. Showing appreciation for insights makes the assistants feel that they are part of a legal team and boosts their desire to contribute when the chips are down. Because a young associate’s best office friend can be his legal assistant, it is counterproductive to be rude to him or her under any circumstances. Legal assistants are the people that young associates depend upon heavily in times of stress, such as looming deadlines. If legal assistants feel as though they are part of the team and have a sense of ownership in the matters that their associates work on, they are much more likely to stay late or come in on a weekend to help out. Some simple things that associates can do to build this team spirit are to introduce their assistants to clients who are in the office; to let them know about victories, defeats and case concerns; and to give compliments for a job well done. This type of professionalism can go a long way to building a rewarding relationship. The one caution here is that it can be difficult to strike the correct balance between boss and friend. It is hard to tell a friend that he cannot take a long lunch or that he cannot leave early on Friday because there is a matter that must be handled. It is also hard to tell a friend that he has done something wrong or incomplete, that he is on the phone too much or that you are too busy to talk right now. However, if the lines of communication are clear, there should be a congenial atmosphere in which everyone knows what his position is and what is expected of him. Know when to say when In a perfect world, everyone gets along. However, some new associates may not fare so well with the legal assistants they work with regularly. Not all personalities mesh, and some people have more trouble acclimatizing than others. There may simply be instances when an associate comes to realize that there are issues with the legal assistant that he works with on a daily basis. If an associate finds himself in this situation, he should, first, take a step back and attempt to look at it objectively: Do other people in the office find it hard to work with that legal assistant? Are the goals and expectations that the associate possesses realistic given the other duties and responsibilities of that legal assistant? Only after looking at the situation objectively should the associate discuss the problem professionally with the legal assistant and work to come up with suggestions and solutions to make the relationship productive for everyone. Recognize in the first few months that mistakes will be made and the lines of communication may have some static. Think through the issue to see if there is any possibility to clear up the static in future communications. Can the problem be solved through detailed written instructions for every project instead of face-to-face interaction? Will it work better always to give the project verbally, and then follow up with simple e-mail confirmation? Whatever the solution, try to find it together. Unfortunately, there are times when two people just do not work well together. In that instance, do not let the situation fester or get out of control. There will be someone in the office to handle these situations if a transfer or other action is necessary-an office manager, human resources director or partner in charge of support staff. Talk to this person about the situation, but avoid being accusatory or derogatory toward the legal assistant. Focus on the inefficiencies and not the individual legal assistant. One of the worst things a new associate can do is to ignore the legal assistant by trying to do all the work oneself. Such an attempt will not only have the associate working an extra three hours a day, but it will make the associate’s practice less effective and efficient. While such inefficiencies may be overlooked in the first year as part of the learning process, the associate’s ability to service clients effectively will suffer if such inefficiencies continue. A good working relationship with legal assistants can make the first year go smoothly and succeed in imparting more knowledge than most of the tomes that were carried around through law school. But each associate has to learn what works best in his or her unique situation. Ask questions, keep an open mind and remember that the first year is the best time to learn how to do the job efficiently and effectively. Communication, kindness and a willingness to be a part of a team go a long way toward building the stepping stones needed for a successful legal career. Jamie Lavergne Bryan is an associate at Dallas’ Hughes & Luce, where her practice focuses on large commercial litigation, emphasizing energy, environmental and land use issues.

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