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Here to help

|Written By Helen Burnett

As a dedicated student over the last few years, you’ve become used to(or prefer) your own way of filing, drafting, and answering your phone.You had no choice but to do everything yourself; however, now thatyou’re an associate, you don’t have to. You have an ally, aknowledgeable assistant whose job it is to help you do yours better.But when you’ve never been a manager before, the road to a goodlawyer-assistant relationship can be paved with landmines. Lawyers andassistants weigh in on some of the issues new associates face when itcomes to having an assistant and how to make the most of this valuableresource.

Learn how to delegate
Probably the toughest thing to learn is how to delegate and relinquish some of your workload. They’re definitely the thorny issues most often brought up by lawyers and assistants alike. While associates admit that learning to let go of some of their daily tasks will take time, assistants say doing so is part of what will make them successful as they progress.

Roz Chasler, assistant director of administrative support services at Ogilvy Renault LLP, says, in terms of the workload issue, the firm sees one of two extremes. One type of associate is one who tries to do everything him or herself. That’s fine for junior associates, she says, but learning to delegate and what to delegate is the key to an associate’s success as they go on and their practice undoubtedly gets busier.

Not all associates are created equal, however. On the other end of the spectrum, Chasler recalls one assistant who was responsible for sharpening the associate’s pencils in the morning. “[We’ve] had it from one extreme to the other . . . where they had the assistant do nothing, to only the menial things,” she says.

“Junior lawyers really vary. Some people I know . . . hardly use an assistant at all. You should be using that resource,” says Rebecca Carroll, an associate with Davis LLP, in Vancouver, who joined the firm last year, after her call to the bar. “I think it’s an important thing to focus on in your first couple years in practice — figuring out how to learn to delegate and make that relationship really work for you,” she says.

Jeff Cormier, an associate with Key McKnight & Maynard in Summerside, P.E.I., says there was a transition period where both he and his assistant had to become familiar with each other’s work habits. What to assign the assistant came to him fairly naturally, he says, though new lawyers will want to do a given task themselves the first or second time, so that when they do delegate, they will know whether it’s been done properly.

“There’s no question it’s a big transition. I mean, we spend years and years as law students and [as] students in undergrad and we get used to doing absolutely everything on our own,” says Grant Coad, an associate who started with Goodmans LLP in Toronto last September. The toughest thing, says Coad, has been getting used to letting go of some things that come up in the normal course of work, such as word processing and certain management-related tasks. With time, he says, he will become more aware of the things that he doesn’t need to be doing himself. But, he adds, both parties need to recognize the relationship will be an evolutionary one.

As a student and then as an articling student, you become used to assisting everybody else, says Carroll, so it takes time to learn what it is that you can ask your assistant to do. “It’s such a great resource, right? But at first you don’t really know how to use it, because you aren’t exactly sure what you can delegate, what’s appropriate to delegate,” she says.

To start, Carroll’s assistant initiated a meeting, where they both sat down and went through their expectations, she says. Questions Carroll asked her assistant right away included: what kinds of systems worked well in the past with other lawyers and what the assistant was expecting would be delegated.

Carroll also had the benefit of attending a seminar for new associates at Davis about working with an assistant. It was run by a senior assistant, who went through the systems she has set up and answered associates’ questions. “Nine times out of 10, you realize that your assistant can do more for you than you even imagined,” says Carroll.

Elaine Tham, an associate formerly with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Vancouver, was called to the bar in May 2007. She also went through BLG’s sessions on “how to use your assistant effectively.” New associates were given advice like “Don’t make decisions for your assistant that they can make themselves,” and “When the opportunity presents itself, introduce your assistant to clients.”

She found one-on-one meetings useful as well. “When I was first teamed up with my assistant, she came in and just told me about certain things that she was able to do for me and certain things that she did for the other lawyers in my team too, which was really helpful,” she says, “because just starting to practise for the first time, [I found myself] not knowing the things that I could give a particular assistant and to not give them things that would not challenge them or to give them things that were too challenging.”

Tham says when she was hired back at BLG, her practice started to develop and get quite busy. “It is definitely very useful to be able to parcel out certain tasks to do,” she says, adding it's also cost-efficient for the client.
For those already adept at delegating, one important thing, notes Tham, is to always check your assistant’s work. “A letter, for example — I always read it. If binders are supposed to be done, I make sure that the index tabs [and] everything is correctly set out. Because a lot of the things that go out are going to be in my name, it’s really important for me to look over things and to make sure that it’s what I’m looking for,” she says.

Having an assistant who has more years of experience at the firm also helps, she says. “To have my assistant be here for five-plus years and know . . . what I want to do and how I see things necessarily is the right way and to be accepting and open to change.”

“They’ll have more insight, really, from the get-go as to how they can really help my practice,” says Coad.
One senior assistant at a large Toronto firm, who preferred to remain anonymous, says associates at her firm do their own work and work for partners for the most part. “They can’t rely on their assistant, because, a lot of times, associates aren’t given seasoned assistants,” she says. When an associate doesn’t know the rules of file-management or reports, for example, this can affect the senior assistants, who then have to spend time sorting things out and sending things back and forth for approval.

Appreciation and politeness go a long way — and don’t forget humour
Juniors in a firm know how difficult it can be to have people tell them what to do, says Tham. Therefore, when she is the one telling someone what to do, it is better to be nice and have that relationship with her assistant. “You’ll find that assistants are much happier to do work for you when you’re nicer,” she says.

While many of the associates who come into the firm are grateful to have an assistant, says the senior assistant, “some come in with an attitude. Of course, they’re working with young assistants who don’t feel they can say anything.” She adds there have been instances where a senior assistant had no problem going to a partner to discuss a new associate’s bad attitude.

“Your assistant is a great help to an associate, and the associate should appreciate all the work that the assistant does for them,” says Cormier. “It’s often the secretary that keeps the associate organized — and that’s key.”
“General courtesies, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, goes a long way,” says Chasler.

“The associates should treat their assistants as if they [the associates] were the assistants. The fundament of any associate-assistant relationship should be respect and trust. As well, the associates should constantly reward their assistants for their work by using encouraging words,” another Toronto assistant commented.

Humour, too, is essential to beating stress in the work environment. “I believe that no matter how much you have on your plate on a certain day, or no matter how stressful the environment is, if an associate approaches me with a smile or a joke, the whole stress simply vanishes. In this way, I can better focus and work harder on the files at hand,” says the assistant.

As you’ll be working very closely with your assistant for months or even years, Coad adds, “you’ve got to build a relationship you can carry forward through that time.” Tham says got to know her assistant at BLG very well, and on a personal level could have a conversation, which helped. “If I’m having a bad day, she’s somebody that I [could] talk to.

“Try to develop a good rapport with your assistant,” she suggests. In her firm, for example, associates are first teamed up with assistants depending on the assistant's capacity to take on a lawyer. “In order to develop that relationship, to know whether this could work in the long term, it’s really important to get to know the person.”
One potential issue, notes Chasler, is that some associates are paired with assistants who are similar in age and they become good friends — but what if things become less amiable?

In the Toronto assistant’s experience, she says her educational background, years of experience, and high level of maturity have helped her to speak with her associate as friends. “Although we both have a good sense of humour that has helped us pass through stressful situations, we perfectly know our boundaries and limits, and make sure not to cross them,” she says.

Communication is key
Communication is another must-have between new associates and their assistants. From the first day, open communication is key, notes Chasler. Associates should have a discussion with their new assistant to outline how they handle work — whether they like to answer their own phones, for example — so the two can generally set up some sort of working system.

As time goes on, planning is important, including letting your assistant know about large projects and deadlines, as well as exactly what you are looking for. “Although it is not always possible, it is important to try to assign a task to your secretary at the first available opportunity. It is not fair to her to provide a task at the last moment,” says Cormier.

“You need to really learn to clearly communicate what you want and time-frames . . . because people can’t guess that right. If you want something done in one day, make sure you say that right up front and don’t just sit there hoping that it comes back in one day” says Carroll.

Tham also suggests associates provide their assistants with detailed instructions. “It’s really hard to do something when you’re not really sure what the lawyer’s looking for,” she says, which can even include providing precedents and context.

From an assistant’s perspective, says Chasler, explaining a bit of the background on a file is useful, as is pre-warning about big documents that need to be turned around quickly.

Being aware of schedules, especially where the assistant works for several lawyers — a situation common in many firms — is essential. New associates in a share situation can become very intimidated because of the partner’s work, but in actual fact, priority of work dictates what gets done first, she says.

One issue Tham had to overcome in a share situation was asking the assistant whether it was alright to give her work. She says she was later told the reason she was put into that team was that the assistant would be able to take on the capacity. “It was an adjustment for me to know that, ‘Well, I guess my work can come before some more senior person’, and . . . that it’s not about the hierarchy,” she says.

As time passes, it’s also worth sitting down with your assistant to see how things are going, suggests Cormier. “It is better to resolve an issue at the get-go, rather than cause a buildup of tension.”

The senior assistant suggests associates find out what their assistant’s limits are. If the partnership isn’t working out, they should also not be afraid to go to HR and ask for someone more qualified, for example. “If they don’t take some action, if things are not working out on a work-performance basis . . . it could affect their product and their assessment,” says Chasler. 

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