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The benefits of not being a smug lawyer

Before being called to the bar is a good time to learn how to work with your support staff.
|Written By Charles Gillis
The benefits of not being a smug lawyer
Illustration: jupiterimages

Each year a new cadre of freshly minted lawyers enters the legal market brimming with optimism and confidence. Undaunted by the harsher realities of their chosen profession, they secure employment and prepare themselves for a career in law. There are outliers in this crowd; individuals who stand a bit taller than their colleagues, lifted not by merit but by the hot air of an overdeveloped ego. These swaggering braggarts cross the threshold of their career so utterly convinced of their own importance they become intoxicated with an exaggerated sense of self-worth.  To these lawyers I present a sobering antidote: the legal secretary.

While there are many factors that dictate success, one way to increase your odds is to develop a great relationship with your secretary or assistant. Most new lawyers learn this quickly and recognize that a good assistant helps them to become a great lawyer. An assistant can make every day of your life easier, or harder, depending on your attitude and approach. Smug lawyers create assistants who offer little actual assistance or worse yet, assistants who may not come to their aid in a time of need. Creating a successful relationship with staff is easy if you care. There are a few simple rules that can help you start this relationship on the right foot.

Don’t be fooled by the money

Staff members make less than lawyers but it does not mean they are less important. Don’t confuse a paycheque with your personal value to humanity. Your educational opportunities and career choices don’t necessarily make you smarter or better than anyone. Don’t judge others by your definition of success. Make your secretary feel inferior and you can expect inferior support.

Don’t play the “I’m the boss” card

We aren’t born with personnel management skills. Be open to training and learn from others. Managing staff is not as easy as you may think. If you have to repeatedly tell someone you are their boss, you probably haven’t managed the role well. Poor management skills become worse over time. If you have trouble, get help before you earn a reputation as a difficult lawyer.

Beware of working without a net

If you work well with a secretary they will be a dutiful assistant and ensure your work product is flawless. This often occurs because dedicated assistants work late to ensure you meet your deadlines. If you treat your assistant poorly, don’t be surprised to be working alone after 5 p.m. Unhappy support staff are not keen to sacrifice their personal time to help accommodate your inability to work efficiently.

Recognize the professional

An assistant with 30 years of legal experience probably knows more of the law than you do, and probably will for some time. Their institutional wisdom is a gold mine of policy, procedures, and protocol. If you ask nicely they will share their knowledge. Assume you know everything and you will soon learn that you do not.

Be open to their advice

Support staff have their fingers on the pulse of the firm. Rather than barge into the managing partner’s office, it’s a good idea to say hello to the managing partner’s assistant first. If it turns out that you’re arriving at an inopportune time, that person might clue you in and help you avoid walking in the line of fire. If you don’t care enough to acknowledge the assistant, they probably won’t care enough to offer you fair warning.

Realize the benefit of being liked

An assistant who likes you will always portray you in the best light. For example, when a partner is upset because he or she is unable to find you when you have stepped away, they will call your assistant, and if your assistant likes you, he or she may reply in this fashion: “He is not here at the moment; he probably ran to the library to look at a Dominion Law Report.”

A secretary who doesn’t like you might reply thusly: “He’s probably outside having a cigarette, again.”

Or worse: “I have no idea where he is. I never know when he is going to be here. He doesn’t tell me anything.”

Recognize the person

Creating a lasting partnership with your assistant is easy if you can pause long enough to actually care about his or her feelings. It’s quite simple to create a positive relationship. Start by making a note of their birthday, wedding anniversary, or other special events. Acknowledge those days and do something nice. This effort will go a long way in creating a valued work relationship. At the end of the day, work is much more pleasant when you like the people close to you.

Learn from the errors of others

Odds are you will encounter the smug attorney who treats his or her assistant poorly. Learn from their mistakes. Observe the obstacles that they place before themselves and pay attention to the needless frustrations in their practice. You can avoid personnel headaches, controversy, and the never-ending churn of resignations if you simply apply the basic concepts of decency in your workplace. Lawyers who realize this and appreciate their staff soon find that their staff will do practically anything to help them succeed. Assistants, in particular, have a long and well-documented history of going above and beyond the call of duty to help lawyers be the best they can be. Your work helps them, their work helps you. Before long you will realize that you have a shared destiny with those around you. If you approach it right, everyone wins.

Charles Gillis is the executive director of the law firm Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr PC in Dallas, Texas. He can be reached at