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Michael Kuh admits that he needed a lot of help when he started as a new associate at Latham & Watkins two years ago, but he would rather keep the discussion to a minimum. “Ask me what I didn’t need help with. It’s a shorter list.” During those first few days in the firm’s New York office, Kuh was eager to impress the partners “right off the bat,” he said. But he also realized that if he was ever going to distinguish himself from other associates in the firm’s brimming talent pool, he needed to make a connection with legal aces who knew the organization’s political machinations, who created consensus among competing egos and who could get things done. In short, Kuh needed a secretary. One of the best pieces of advice young lawyers say they receive from seasoned partners is to earn the trust of legal assistants-including secretaries, paralegals and document clerks-who often know more about the inner workings of a law firm than some of its partners do. Frequently an invaluable source of law firm insider information, legal assistants can help new hires with everything from finding paperclips to schmoozing partners. At the same time, these professionals, many of whom have witnessed dozens of first-year classes come through their firms’ doors, offer incisive observations of those beginners who will thrive in a big law firm and those who will founder. A major advantage of buddying up to support personnel is their ability to distinguish between the go-to and the run-from partners. Asking the wrong person not only delays a project, but it can also leave an already jittery associate deflated and embarrassed if the encounter goes badly. Such institutional knowledge also is handy when associates want to start marketing themselves to key partners for promotion. “They helped with which partners I should try to talk to and which partners I should try to work with,” Kuh said. What can make the relationship between support staffers and associates especially strong-or tortured-is that it begins at a time of great change for new lawyers, said Teresa Quinlan, a real estate paralegal who has worked at Foley & Lardner for 33 years. Young attorneys, many of whom have spent the last few years at school in flip-flops and ball caps, now hold very demanding jobs. They are grownups, whether they like it or not, and becoming friendly with a competent legal secretary or paralegal is one of the best ways to make the job easier, she advised. “Life is not as simple as it used to be,” Quinlan said. “Their hours are so important. The pressure to work longer hours has gone up. They really get stressed.” Mathilde Kapuano, a corporate paralegal at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton in Los Angeles, said her 25 years of experience have enabled her to predict who will make partner and who will not. A major shortcoming of associates, according to Kapuano, is their fear of communicating with partners. She said beginners mistakenly take on too many assignments and promise their completion earlier than humanly possible, often without knowing exactly what they need to do, she said. And if they do approach a partner about the overload, they often wait until the last minute to do so. It is the desire to impress that renders associates mute, Kuh said. “There’s fear that you’ll say or do something really stupid,” he said. Kapuano said she has grown accustomed to the “blank stare” that quickly washes over associates during those first days on the job as they are bombarded with new information. She said that although senior associates and partners are mindful of the mentoring that newcomers need, they also have their own tight schedules. “They have all good intentions of being able to devote time to help people, but the phone and e-mail and client demands dictate. So that job falls upon my shoulders,” she said. New associates come to the firm with plenty of book knowledge, she said, but they lack a grasp of the “nuts and bolts” of lawyering that the support staff possesses. Different roles When Jason Vanacour started as an associate at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix two years ago, he had no idea what to do with support staff. A former professional soccer player, he had never worked with a secretary, much less a paralegal. As a beginner, he had to learn about the different roles employees play, himself included. “The biggest problem is that you want to do all the work on your own,” said Vanacour, a commercial litigator. With fewer client matters to handle in those early days, he was doing much of the work his support staff could have performed. Instead of writing a letter and letting his secretary clean it up and put it on letterhead, Vanacour was drafting, revising and printing his letters and addressing the envelopes himself. “I’d basically hand her a letter ready to mail,” he said, adding that his secretary informed him that she could do those tasks for him. “Having people work for me was kind of an odd thing,” he said. It took some time for Michael Hyman to realize that support staffers could be an attorney’s strongest allies. “I was known as a terror,” said Hyman, who is president of the Chicago Bar Association and a litigator at Much Shelist Freed Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein. When he started practicing more than 20 years ago, “word got around” among the staff that he was overly demanding and unappreciative, he said. But he learned quickly to set aside ego and get in the good graces of secretaries and paralegals, which made his job much easier. “It’s not a power relationship, but a powerful relationship,” Hyman said. The working relationships between support staff and new associates apparently have changed over the years. Marie Leahy, who has been a legal assistant since 1980 and has worked at Hunton & Williams’ office in New York for three years, said that more competition among associates to make partner has humbled them. She added that they also compete for the best secretaries. “Twenty years ago they were very full of themselves,” she said. “They appreciate now what support staff can do for them.” Another difference is the level of self-awareness, said Quinlan, with Foley & Lardner. Even if they do not know any more about practicing law than incoming attorneys did 20 years ago, at least today they are more attuned to their lack of knowledge, she said. Kapuano also sees changes, but in a different way. She said high salaries, which spiked in the late 1990s, created a shift in how associates viewed their own market value. New associates today are “overconfident,” she said, an attitude that law firms themselves have fostered with big paychecks. But even if support staff knows more about practicing law than the new lawyers hired each year, tact is essential when providing lessons. Quinlan said a gentle approach is best. “I tell them, ‘You might want to rethink that,’ ” she said.

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