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The typical new associate’s 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 your law school diploma is even hung on the wall, you 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, you may feel as if you have 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 your 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 you learn how to work effectively with legal assistants — i.e., both secretaries and paralegals — as well as other office staff, the smoother the first year will go. But what are these legal assistants really there for? How can they help you do your job? Learning how to utilize legal assistants can ease the stress of 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 asking the legal assistants about office procedures and firm history, you will increase your knowledge base, efficiency, and value to the firm. PRACTICAL GUIDES A diploma on the wall does not mean that you know more about the practice of law than the legal assistants, many of whom began working in a legal environment long before you 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 you understand what they do, you can communicate effectively and will know how to get the job done when they’re not there to help. 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 you have a basic knowledge of how the office works, you can survive a day alone. More important, as you begin moving through the ranks, you will have a practical understanding of what the support staff 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, good secretaries do 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 provide 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, to pitch in and identify broad issues, ultimately you must make the final judgment call. One thing you may find helpful is sitting down with the legal assistants you will work with regularly and discussing expectations and working styles. This will give both you and the legal assistants 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 everyone have a better understanding of the ordinary goals when handing out assignments and starting on new matters. ASSIGNING TASKS 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, you and the legal assistant can develop a method and manner of assigning and working through tasks that gets the job done correctly the first time, every time. The overall goal should be to communicate effectively about 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 their insights and experience makes the assistants feel that they are part of a legal team and boosts their desire to contribute to the work product. Because your best office friend can be your 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 a member 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 something she did is wrong or incomplete, that she 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. RELATIONSHIP ISSUES 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 you come to realize that there are issues with the legal assistant you work with daily. If you find yourself in this situation, 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 your goals and expectations realistic given the other duties and responsibilities of that legal assistant? Only after looking at the situation objectively should you 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 that in the first few months mistakes will be made and the lines of communication may have some static. Think through the issue: 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. Someone in the office can 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, not the individual legal assistant. One of the worst things you can do is to ignore the legal assistant by trying to do all the work yourself. That will not only lead to your working an extra three hours a day, it will also make your practice suffer. While inefficiencies may be overlooked in the first year as part of the learning process, it will reduce your ability to service clients properly. A good working relationship with legal assistants can make the first year go smoothly and teach you more than you learned from most of the tomes you 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 right. Communication, kindness, and a willingness to be a part of a team go a long way toward building the steppingstones 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. This article first appeared in the National Law Journal, an American Lawyer Media newspaper.

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