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Being a Good Boss: Dos and Don'ts for Working with Your First Assistant

By Paul McLaughlin


It can be quite scary the first time you have somebody working for you, particularly when you are a new associate and your assistant is older or more experienced than you. It's even worse if he or she has an intimidating personality. But like it or not, you are the leader in this hierarchical relationship. The one who sets the expectations. The captain of the team. The "boss."

Law school doesn't quite prepare you for the many ways in which your success will depend on how hard someone else is willing to work for you. At first, you may not even be sure what your expectations should be in your relationship with an assistant. So the first step is to get clear about what you can and should expect. In this, as in so many other matters, communication is key.

Clarifying Your Expectations

If you communicate your goals and your instructions clearly, your assistant will know what to do without referring every detail back to you. You will become confident that your work is being done correctly, and on time, even when you're not there to directly supervise. With proper communication, the two of you can learn to work together like doubles tennis champions, each with a deep intuitive understanding of the other's moves.

For example, when you say, "Please call John Smith and see if he can come in for a meeting," your assistant needs to know whether you mean, "Find out when the client is available, and I will then decide when we will meet," or, "Arrange a meeting with John Smith, put it in my calendar and send a confirming e-mail."

Clarifying expectations takes some extra time, particularly at the beginning of the relationship, but it pays big dividends and saves time down the road.

Learning to Give Good Feedback

You also have to learn how to communicate approval and disapproval. Giving feedback is an art, particularly in the relatively unstructured, day-to-day interaction between lawyer and assistant. It's not an easy art to learn. Everyone is different, so you need to figure out the rewards that work for your assistant, even if they don't make sense to you. It's not always about money. For example, flexible hours or an adjustment in benefits may be more important than a raise.

What is important in every working relationship, however, are words of appreciation for a job well-done. In the long run, you will find that approval is a much more powerful motivator than disapproval.

Some lawyers seem to consider it a sign of weakness to compliment an assistant on a good performance. They think the assistant should know that if they don't say anything, they are happy with the way things are going. But to most employees, silence implies disapproval and can be very demotivating. If you want to encourage the kind of independence that's invaluable in an assistant, don't criticize sarcastically every time your expectations are not met—or you will foster the opposite of the behavior you want to promote. Pat Yevics, director of the Maryland State Bar Association's Law Office Management Assistance Program, has said it best: "You can't bully an employee into excellence." Beyond that, it's always much more pleasant to work in an office based on
encouragement.

While most people who work with lawyers like a challenge, you have to remember that with every challenge there is a risk of failure and disapproval. It is up to you to provide an environment in which it is safe for your assistant to learn from mistakes and, thereby, develop new skills and knowledge and take on new responsibilities. Give your assistant challenges, but don't throw him or her into the deep end without a life jacket.

More Dos and Don'ts for an Excellent Match

To further help you through the being-a-boss jungle, here is a crib sheet for how and how not to act.

· Do tell your assistant where you are when you leave your office.

· Do assign priorities when you give your assistant several jobs at once.

· Do introduce your assistant to your clients.

· Do share the credit when things go well.

· Do encourage your assistant to take training courses.

· Do say please and thank you.

· Do set an example by being hardworking and professional and showing that you care about the clients.

· Do keep your personal problems to yourself, especially your issues with other people who work for your firm.

· Do prevent a buildup of tensions by sitting down with your assistant at least once a month and really listening.

· Don't hover over your assistant and make a sucking noise at every typo.

· Don't wait until the annual performance review to reveal what your assistant's goals should have been.

· Don't act like your disorganization is your assistant's problem.

· Don't eat, slurp coffee, cough, sneeze or sniff into the dictation machine.

· Don't yell from the next room or use hand gestures to signal your assistant to come and go.

· Don't shift the blame when things go wrong.

· Don't lie to your assistant, and don't ask your assistant to lie on your behalf.

· Above all, don't underestimate the power of positive expectations, participation, civility and recognition. In the end, it's about two people working together toward a common goal—client service. To get to the goal, keep these words from K. William Gibson, a former chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section, in mind at all times: "No matter how good a lawyer you are, you can be no better than the people around you."

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