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A typical mistake made by some new lawyers is to be rude or curt to support staff at their firms. Unfortunately, some young associates fresh out of law school feel it is acceptable to be dismissive to the firm’s non-lawyers because, in their eyes, these individuals are less worthy of respect. Simply put, that’s an arrogant and shortsighted approach. Support staff members are the unsung heroes of large-firm life. Many attorneys owe these employees a debt of gratitude for going above and beyond their job descriptions or for getting an associate or two out of a jam from time to time. There are countless examples of staff working together to make sure that a firm’s clients receive the best possible services. There’s the secretary who stays late to edit a document that needs to go out early the next morning. Or the word processor who goes to your office at 3 a.m. to fax something you left on your desk. Perhaps it’s a legal assistant who remembers to have a notary at the closing when the first-year associate forgets. Then there’s the mailroom employee who personally delivers a package on foot to an address across town because of rush-hour traffic. These scenarios might not occur if lawyers do not work to develop relationships of mutual respect with the support staff. It is also important to understand the different roles people play in the management of a firm and whom to go to when you need to ask for help. • Legal assistants and paralegals Because the role of a legal assistant and paralegal varies from firm to firm, it’s best to ask a senior associate before assuming what these staff members can and cannot do. For example, legal assistants who work on litigation matters are usually responsible for organizing discovery documents and case files, assisting in retrieving documents, setting up depositions and assisting with trial matters. In transactional departments, paralegals assist in preparing incorporation documents and resolutions or running a closing transaction. If in doubt, a more senior associate on the matter will know what is appropriate work for the legal assistant. Remember, it is an associate’s responsibility to oversee the legal assistant’s work and make sure it is done correctly and efficiently. Take the time to explain clearly and concisely what needs to be done and check on the project as it progresses. Failure to do so often leads to work being done inefficiently and improperly, resulting in a sub-par work product that will likely be regarded as your fault. • Secretaries If your firm is typical of other large firms, your secretary is most likely assigned to two, three or sometimes four attorneys. If one or more of those are partners, it is a sure bet your work will be at the bottom of the priority list. For many young lawyers, this first experience with a secretary might take some getting used to. Don’t demand the impossible or forget to acknowledge that your secretary is trying to balance a lot of demands — perhaps even some that conflict — on his or her time. Also, most secretaries have worked in the legal profession for many years and are good sources of information about the firm and about the profession itself. As a new person at the firm, use this to your advantage. Secretaries know the administrative functions of the firm and can probably provide practical advice as to its workings. • Word processing Staff members who work in word processing or document services are generally assigned to type your documents and perhaps even deliver them to your home after hours or on weekends. At our firm, the word processing department provides typists for late night and weekend work that requires immediate turnaround. Most of the large documents in the office will be typed and proofread by members of this department. One piece of advice is to be honest when dealing with the word processing department. When you are asked about deadlines, be reasonable and realistic. If you present a 150-page document to a staff member at 7 p.m. and demand that work on it be completed as soon as possible even though it is not really needed until the next morning, that news will travel fast and will not be forgotten. Also, take a look at your handwriting. If you write clearly and mark your changes so they are easy to follow, you will get better results. And do not forget the proofreaders. While they are good resources for checking grammar, you should not depend on them exclusively and you should always check their work. There are times when legalese is simply not grammatically correct and you are responsible for making sure the document is appropriate for legal purposes. It is best to handle these situations with tact and courtesy as they have a tendency to happen when deadlines are looming and tempers are short. As for those staff members who work in your firm’s duplicating department, which is responsible for copying documents either on-site or organizing services outside the firm, the operative policy once again is honesty. Be honest about deadlines and give as much notice as possible when large jobs are coming. Understanding the ways in which different departments at your firm work will make it easier to do your job. But remember that you are ultimately responsible for your work. If something is not done properly and on time, your reputation is at stake. All the more reason to remain active and involved. And be nice. Treating support staff with respect goes a long way toward getting them to do whatever it takes when it’s crunch time. Practice basic courtesy. Say “please” and “thank you.” Sure, in most cases you are simply asking others to do their jobs. But just as young associates are looking to gain recognition from partners, support staff members appreciate knowing that they have done a good job. Alison King and Daniel Boglioli are associates at Kaye Scholer in New York City.

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