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What they don’t teach you in law school is that success in law practice depends on more than your own legal abilities. You cannot produce quality work for clients without the support and expertise of many other people — including non-lawyers. In the modern-day law office there are a wealth of administrative support services available to help attorneys work more efficiently. While large law firms are particularly well-equipped, attorneys working in every other practice setting also utilize either internal or external services to support their work. Recognizing the value of these practice aids, and communicating effectively with the providers of these services, is a vital part of integrating into any law office. New attorneys who learn to effectively utilize support services maximize their productivity and develop positive working relationships with staff, which contributes to increased job satisfaction. GET TO KNOW THE SYSTEM Attorneys who are supplied with administrative support services by their firms or law offices have a responsibility to become thoroughly acquainted with these aids. Unfortunately, legal employers frequently offer only cursory orientations to introduce new recruits to administrative staff. It is up to new attorneys to seek out training opportunities and to acquaint themselves with the resources their employer provides. Also, attorneys need to know the practices and procedures that they are expected to follow when utilizing these services. For example, what kind of jobs does the duplicating department handle in-house on a normal turn-around schedule? Jobs requiring complicated set-ups, imaging, presentation boards and oversized color copies may require special off-site equipment and longer turn-around times. Obtaining this information ahead of time will help ensure that projects are completed on schedule. One of the first support areas new attorneys should explore is information technology. Many law firms have highly sophisticated network applications that attorneys must master to produce their legal work. Corporate associates, in particular, manipulate lengthy documents in complex formats and work their systems to the maximum. These systems can overwhelm associates accustomed to their user-friendly home computers. In-depth, early computer training can save time down the road when an important document must be produced under a strict deadline. Also, associates should learn the firm’s procedures for proper document conversion and formatting, which frequently becomes an issue when downloading from the Internet or copying e-mail attachments. Computer programs used by law firms can be so complex that even secretaries and word processors are confounded by problems that arise. Asking questions of the firm’s information technology experts, seeking help and listening — and not just in the heat of a deal — is a smart investment of time. Law firm litigators should be aware of the services provided by their firms’ managing attorney’s office. Associates are frequently on their own when it comes to litigation management training because clients discourage firms from billing for training. New litigators should begin by reading the relevant court rules and raise any questions with the managing attorney’s office. Learn that office’s procedures for notifications about service of papers, filings, and documenting incoming papers. Before reaching the final stages of producing papers, it is a good idea to check with the managing attorney’s staff to confirm that they are the correct forms in the appropriate formats. Litigators who take the time to learn the nuts and bolts of litigation procedures will prepare themselves for careers that take them from researchers and drafters to full-fledged litigators. STAFF COMMUNICATIONS Attorneys with little legal experience and knowledge of their new work environment can integrate more quickly into their firms or law offices by developing strong professional relationships with support staff. Some new attorneys focus exclusively on developing contacts with other attorneys. While developing relationships with colleagues is very important, attorneys, especially senior attorneys, frequently do not have time to share information with junior attorneys and may not be fully knowledgeable about the resources they require. Experienced support staff may provide the answers you need. Some steps you can take to open up the lines of communication with support staff include: 1. Break the Ice. Introduce yourself to the managers of administrative departments and the individuals who will assist you. Take a few minutes to visit their offices and ask for a tour of their operations. Learn and remember the names of people you meet. 2. Treat Others Respectfully. Give support staff members credit for their knowledge and expertise. Praise good work. 3. Try to Resolve Problems With Staff Members Directly Before Going to Their Supervisors. Conflict or performance issues should be handled early and directly. Direct communication can help to promote a good relationship between attorneys and staff. Document any problems and if they remain unresolved, contact the staff member’s supervisor. 4. Learn and Follow Administrative Procedures. Following administrative procedures is a matter of courtesy and promotes efficiency. SUPERVISING AND EVALUATING Many attorneys enter law practice having no experience with delegating work to other people. Producing a legal product requires the efforts of many in addition to the lawyers, including secretaries, word processors, paralegals, mailroom staff, and many other non-attorney personnel. An attorney may need to coordinate the activities of all of these diverse individuals on a single project. To do so effectively requires identifying the people who can help, properly communicating information about the assignment, and following up. These are important management skills that junior lawyers have early opportunities to practice and hone. Junior associates frequently criticize law firm senior associates and partners for failing to exercise good management and “people” skills. Here are some tips for communicating with support staff that can help junior attorneys develop solid supervisory skills, resulting in high-quality work product and productive relationships with support staff. � Avoid building a reputation as the “boy who cried ‘wolf’.” Communicate realistic deadlines. Junior attorneys who work with demanding partners sometimes treat projects as “rush” when they are normal priority. This makes it difficult for staff to prioritize workloads during periods of heavy activity, requiring them to waste time contacting attorneys to determine actual deadlines. � Provide ample notice of additional staffing needs. Notify staff in advance of extensive or priority projects, especially when additional staff coverage is required. This will guarantee that someone will be available to do your work. � Provide detailed instructions. Conveying detailed instructions makes it less likely that a staff member will need to contact you for more information later on — when you are in the throes of another project or at home. Learn and use the basic terminology used by the department you are instructing, such as, for example “heavy litigation,” “pagination” and “straight run” when dealing with the duplicating department. � Provide appropriate background and context for the assignment. Convey the importance of the project and the staff member’s role in its completion. � Prioritize multiple assignments. Try to meet face to face with the staff member at some stage during the project, either when delegating or following up or after reviewing the staff member’s work. In today’s e-mail and telephone culture, one can communicate back and forth for days with a person without ever seeing him or her. Taking time to meet in person with a staff member shows that you value his or her contribution to the project. WHEN, HOW TO DELEGATE When in doubt about whether to delegate work to someone else, ask whether getting a project off your desk will leave you with more time to do substantive legal work. Your time will be used more productively if you are able to spend most of it working on billable matters. Nevertheless, sometimes new attorneys are given paralegal-type work by senior attorneys as a learning tool. Recognize the difference between attorney and paralegal work so that after the training period is over, you can begin to delegate paralegal tasks and focus on more substantive projects. When delegating work, give the person to whom you are delegating an opportunity to take ownership of that portion of the project. They will perform better for you if you demonstrate confidence in their abilities. Seek out experienced paralegals to answer questions about legal procedures they have dealt with before. Often, new associates are afraid to reveal their lack of knowledge. No one expects a new associate to know everything. Make staff part of your team. Experienced paralegals can be especially helpful in introducing new associates to other resources of the firm. Avoid displaying an air of overconfidence. Ask for advice and show respect for the expertise others have developed. When delegating tasks you have been given by more senior attorneys, be sure you fully understand the assignment and convey it clearly. You don’t want the staff member going to the senior attorney for clarification of faulty instructions. CONCLUSION Working effectively with administrative staff leads to successful outcomes for new attorneys. This approach saves time, helps attorneys anticipate obstacles and plan ahead, and allows the growth of relationships that make work enjoyable. In addition, by understanding how administrative departments function, attorneys obtain a global view of how businesses operate. This knowledge can be useful when attorneys make later career transitions to law firm partner, to business, or to smaller boutique law firms. Cynthia Wyatt, director of career services at New York Law School, was formerly manager of associate development at New York-based Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft.

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