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Practice Management

Treat Your Legal Support Staff Like the Professionals They Are

Sonya Miller, Nathan Winger, and Abby Foster

Treat Your Legal Support Staff Like the Professionals They Are
Kim_Lequeux via iStock

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There are many important components to working well with your team of attorneys, paralegals, legal assistants, and other support staff.

  • First, remember that everyone is a trained professional just like you, which means everyone on your team is there because they bring an important skill set.
  • Second, all the professionals on your team have lives outside of work, and respecting everyone’s outside obligations shows your colleagues that you respect them.
  • Third, learning what your staff does will help you understand and differentiate between how each of you adds value to the firm and how you can work best together.
  • Finally, be sure not to over-delegate your role as an attorney to your non-attorney support staff.

Respect Support Staff

Even if you believe you’re a good boss or team member, consider how you interact with your colleagues on a day-to-day basis. Paralegals and other support staff frequently experience being talked down to and treated with condescension. The diplomas on your wall do not make you better than anyone else on your team. It’s in your interest to treat everyone like the professionals they are and recognize the contributions they make to your organization.

Next, don’t manage a team in a way that makes your colleagues feel like they have to pretend they don’t have a personal life. We all have family and friends who rely on us outside of work. We have appointments, family members get sick, and our pets have health problems. Lead by example and let your team see you putting your own appointments on the shared calendar, and don’t be available by phone or email when taking care of your personal business. Lead by example and respect when others on your team do the same. Overall, remember, treating staff well pays dividends! Many paralegals communicate with one another and are in social media groups where they can and do share information about unpleasant work environments. It is easy to be recognized as a good employer among these groups, but the opposite will spread as well.

Remember, All Staff Are Professionals

Everyone on your staff is a skilled professional. Take the time to learn how your staff do their jobs. When you take an interest in and learn your team’s processes, it helps them feel appreciated. And at some point, your staff will be busy, and you will need to e-file a pleading yourself.

When assigning work, make sure you are clear and explicit about what you want to be done. Realizing that there is a fine line between this and micromanaging, strive to make sure your staff understands what they can and can’t do without your express permission. This clear line of communication and boundaries helps everyone know their role in the firm.

Support Staff Are Not Associate Attorneys

Keep in mind that while a good paralegal can do a lot of tasks in a law firm, they cannot practice law. Beware of the temptation to over-delegate and assign your support staff work they’re not qualified or licensed to do. You cannot rely on paralegals to make decisions about cases. Under no circumstances should a paralegal be giving legal advice to clients or making valuations of clients’ cases. Some attorneys are known for putting their firms on autopilot—never meeting with clients, having paralegals offer legal advice and do all the legwork. This is a fast way to face disciplinary action and needlessly endanger your firm.

Pay attention to how you interact with your team and what structures you have in place that might be supporting or undermining your important work.