How to Work Efficiently with Your Assistant - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Cheoma Julien

Many new lawyers graduate from law school with technological skills and a mind brimming with legal knowledge. We are accustomed to self-sufficiency and have probably never had an assistant. However, once attorneys enter the field, their time becomes limited. An assistant can be essential to an attorney's success. An assistant offers a "lifeline" to the organization. Assistants also help attorneys out of binds in addition to answering questions about legal practice. Remember the following key points to work efficiently with assistants from the first day and throughout career development.

Meet with your assistant as soon as possible.
At the earliest convenience, meet with your assistant. Your assistant may be shy or just very busy so take initiative to schedule a meeting. This does not have to be a formal meeting. Perhaps lunch or coffee might suffice. But allow for some time to understand how your assistant works, the extent of her (or his) duties, to whom your assistant reports (at many law firms assistants work for at least two lawyers), and her typical working hours. Attorneys interact with their assistants on a daily basis; an initial meeting can help to start the relationship off on the right foot.

Make sure your assistant knows where you are at all times.
In any law practice, but especially in law firms, partners and senior associates expect to be notified if an attorney is out of the office. Otherwise, it can be embarrassing for all involved if a matter needs immediate attention and the attorney cannot be found. Inform your assistant of time away (more than an hour) from your desk or the office. Allowing your assistant access to your calendar (Microsoft Outlook, or one similar) and email presents an easy solution. Or perhaps a systematic meeting to discuss schedules might work. E-mail before leaving for an event also offers a quick and simple solution.

Treat your assistant with respect.
It goes without saying that everyone in the firm or organization should be treated with respect, especially assistants. This point is not about the basic tenets of treating people kindly. Rather, focus on respecting your assistant's time. There will be days when you need something finished as soon as possible and your assistant will stay late to accommodate the work. However, you should respect that this person may have family obligations or outside activities that need attention, and so, if possible, give your assistant some advance notice of assignments. In turn, your assistant will respect your time and make sure to finish your requests by the deadline or in advance.

Learn to work together.
As time progresses, identify efficient work habits. You might prefer to enter time into the billing system, or to delegate typing notes to your assistant. You might also prefer to make copies or to have them sent to the reproduction center. Perhaps your assistant makes copies. Your assistant may know how to file motions or put together documents for contracts. Involving her in the process might present a teaching opportunity. If your assistant works for a partner or senior associate, a new attorney's work might be second or third on her list. Figure out the best working style, inform your assistant, and begin a work flow system that benefits both parties.

Address issues immediately.
If your assistant missed a deadline or, perhaps, has turned a cold shoulder, address the issue as soon as possible. Do not let issues simmer, affecting the relationship and ultimately the work, even if that means admitting to mistakes.

Own mistakes.
Even if your assistant types a letter, proofreads documents, or files motions, the attorney is ultimately responsible for the work product. Point out mistakes to the assistant, but never use her as a buffer between yourself and an angry partner, client, or fellow associate. Check your assistant's work, if possible.

Ask for help.
There may be times when first starting out that you have questions you might not want to ask partners or other associates. These questions may vary from how to electronically file a motion to how to fax a document. Never feel embarrassed to ask your assistant any question, no matter how silly it may seem. Your assistant has probably been at your organization for several years and can offer useful insight.

Keep in contact with your assistant.
Initially, you may not need your assistant's help. It may take weeks or even months before consistent work necessitates assistance from someone else. Still, stay in contact with your assistant. A quick hello or weekly email will be helpful to keep up the relationship. Do not allow several weeks to pass and then, suddenly, put three assignments on your assistant's desk. Your assistant will wonder where you came from and may not have anticipated your work. Keeping in contact allows your assistant to anticipate assignments. This lack of surprise will benefit all involved.

Advance notice for vacation or days off.
Many law firms will have a system in place so that if your assistant is out, someone else will cover the work for that day. However, it is helpful to know ahead of time when your assistant will be out. Ask your assistant to inform you in advance of vacation days or late arrival and early departure. Your assistant should also know about your vacation time in advance so that your assistant is prepared to check your emails, answer your phone, check your mail, or perform any other tasks that need to be accomplished in your absence.

Your assistant might provide emotional support at the firm.
Personal issues might arise in the beginning of a career, such as sick leave, an ill family member, a break-up or divorce, or an emotionally draining event. Your assistant might provide an outlet for anxiety or frustration. Likewise, your assistant might confide in you about personal issues. In a working environment, it is sometimes difficult to open up to other associates or partners and might be precipitous for confidentiality reasons. Your assistant can sometimes provide support, which will help in the stressful environment of the practice of law.

Following these simple tips can help you to develop a good working relationship with your assistant and will aid in the production of excellent work from both of you.

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About the Author

Ms. Julien is a litigation associate at Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP in Florham Park, NJ, whose areas of focus include labor and employment and product liability.

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