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Michael Kuh admits that he needed a lot of help when he started as a new associate at Latham & Watkins in New York City two years ago. “Ask me what I didn’t need help with. It’s a shorter list.” 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. “Twenty years ago they were very full of themselves,” she said. “They appreciate now what support staff can do for them.” Leigh Jones is a reporter with The National Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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