Working well with your assistant

Working well with your assistant
This month, as part of the typical annual review period, I was asked to review my assistant and the firm’s law clerks and articling students. It occurred to me that one of the most challenging aspects of transitioning from student to associate is supervising others.
This is a totally new experience for me. Many of my friends had careers prior to law school, including stints in insurance, hospitality, the military, and politics. All of them had experience supervising others. In contrast, my only extended periods of full-time work have been in law firms in Burlington, Ont., Ottawa, and Toronto where I’ve always been a student. As a master’s student, I worked for one summer in human resources for the City of Edmonton, but again, not in a supervisory role. My short-term work periods have always involved research assistance or some other kind of academic work where I’m being supervised, not the other way around.

Reviewing the articling students was not too difficult. I’m very familiar with the articling process and what reasonable expectations of articling students should be. Reviewing my assistant was different, though. I’ve never had an assistant before, and while I have a basic understanding of her role, I have a lot to learn in terms of navigating the dynamics of the lawyer-assistant relationship.

In addition to being unfamiliar with exactly how best to use an assistant, I imagine many first-years (myself included) feel uncomfortable assigning work in the early days. For one, all of the assistants at my office are older than me. Some have been working successfully in the legal business for longer than (wait for it) I’ve been alive. Let’s just be totally honest for a minute — it can be awkward to assign work to someone with children older than me (and if you have to give negative feedback, even worse). An assistant’s years of experience compared to my relative inexperience can be intimidating.

On top of that, when you’re used to doing all of your own work, learning to rely on other people is not easy. Sometimes it just seems easier to file your own materials or type up your own letters. Note the word “seems”; it’s not actually easier, it may just be more comfortable because it’s habit. But as with everything else this year, it’s time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Making the most of office resources, including staff, is a critical part of the job.

One of my favourite “how-to” books on legal practice is The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law by Mark Herrmann. This book rocks — it’s a funny, to-the-point read full of advice for new calls from a curmudgeonly senior lawyer. I highly recommend it, though learn from my experience and don’t read Chapter 2 “How to Fail as an Associate” the night before a solo court appearance (unless you want hideous, realistic nightmares).

In Chapter 4, entitled “The Curmudgeonly Secretary,” Herrmann puts on the guise of a tough-as-nails assistant telling young lawyers like it is. He writes:

“I doubt that the managing partner types his own briefs and copies his own exhibits; I’m sure it won’t impress him that you do. What will impress him is when you start doing more than your share of productive work, not when you waste time acting as your own assistant. I know that you didn’t major in accounting, but it’s just not cost-effective for lawyers to perform their own administrative duties.”

Herrmann is right; the martyr, do-it-yourself attitude is not economical. Effective lawyers need to be able to run an efficient, cost-effective, client-centered practice. The internal hierarchy of most law firms is designed to ensure this. Every employee and partner in a law firm has a particular role to play in facilitating the smooth operation of the law firm machine. My role is to produce quality legal work and to use the resources available to me to get there. So I’ve had to get over the “do-it-myself” attitude and learn to delegate. I try to always give clear instructions, precise timelines for when work needs to be completed, and a bit of background on the file so my assistant understands how her work is fitting into the larger picture of the case.

From the beginning, I’ve been clear with my assistant that I want us to work as a team. She is very experienced and knows a lot more than I do about important areas like file management systems and the practicalities of dealing with courts. As a team, we can provide excellent client service, but only if we work together. The effort for this collaborative approach has to come from both of us.

One perk of having plenty of experience as a “supervisee” is that I know how I want to be treated when I’m in that role. I want to be given clear instructions, treated with courtesy and respect, and appreciated for my work. If I make a mistake, I want it to be addressed, learned from, and moved on from swiftly. I’ve tried to use this approach with my assistant, who is terrific and very patient with my learning curve in these past few months.

I’ve made it clear that an open dialogue is important to me, and that giving feedback is a two-way street in our relationship. If I can make her job a little bit easier, all the better. Let’s face it, in first year we can use all the help we can get.

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