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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. 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 on an associate’s ability to learn how to take advantage of the skill and experience of the legal support staff. For many first-year associates, downtime between projects and the wait for feedback can be used to their advantage. By asking the legal assistants about office procedures and firm history, an associate will increase his or her knowledge base, efficiency and value to the firm. Practical Guides 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. 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. 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 she cannot take a long lunch or that something he did is wrong or incomplete. 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, not all personalities mesh, and some people have more trouble acclimatizing than others. There simply may 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 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. 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. A good working relationship with legal assistants can make things 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. Bryan is an associate at Hughes & Luce of Dallas.

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