How to Use Your Assistant Effectively

Brownie Points: How to use your legal assistant effectively.

Whether you are a new attorney or only a relatively new one, we can all learn a few tips about better use of our legal assistant. Here's a few that come to mind.

In almost all cases, the legal assistant knows both the court processes and the office processes better than younger attorneys do, so you should take advantage of that experience. But do it with respect and cooperation or the whole attorney-assistant relationship can sour and when that happens you can have monumental problems that can cripple your practice, wreak havoc with your schedule, and just plain ruin your day.

Don't forget that you and your assistant are a team. There are no secrets and plenty of help passed back and forth between team members. Don't ask your assistant to do something for you that you wouldn't do for them. Don't ask them to do something for you just because "I'm the lawyer." Every experienced attorney knows that nothing runs right without the legal assistant having made it so.

Now you probably didn't think about it before but sometimes your assistant can use your help too. Don't be stingey with it. Odds are they won't need it often and the odds are even greater that they won't ask for it when they do. Try to be observant and offer up your help when it looks like it might be needed. Part of teamwork is you being willing to help them out once in a while too. Besides, it is often more important to your assistant just to know that you're willing to help out when needed, than actually even doing it.

Remember: that law degree doesn't make you omniscient and all-powerful. If you aren't sure how to do something, no matter how simple it might be, ask your assistant. Asking shows that you respect their experience and want to be able to rely on them for help. Remember that once upon a time, they had to ask someone too. They'll appreciate it and you'll earn their respect back.

Everyone wants and needs to feel useful and appreciated and asking for help is a recognition of that. If you just blunder your way through things and they go wrong, you lose respect for not having asked and you may get yourself into bigger trouble than you bargained for (both with the court and with your own office staff). Worse yet, your assistant will not like the fact that you could have avoided the problem altogether if you had just bothered to ask.

Realize that your law degree didn't teach you anything about the mechanical processes used in the law and your assistant knows more about that than you know now or will likely ever learn. Worse yet, nothing in law school teaches you how to work effectively with an assistant either. But doing just that can free up more of your time to work on productive "lawyer" work.

Your assistant is there to do the "non-law stuff" that you need help with every single day. It's just plain more economical that way. More importantly, it's a lot more productive. After all, there is no "Copier Machine 101" course in law school but there are thousands of different copiers, each with their own instructions and quirks.

Treat your assistant with respect and concern. Having an assistant is a luxury for many young attorneys but what many of them haven't learned yet is that it's a necessity too. Take your assistant seriously and ask for help or advice often. For a young attorney, there's no such thing as a dumb question. But there are lots of examples of dumb decisions that were made without realizing what your assistant already knew.

Assistants are people too. Try to never give your assistant rush work just an hour before the end of the day because it will interrupt what they already had planned to get done in that last hour. Just because you didn't plan your last hour of the day doesn't mean your assistant didn't either.

And while most assistants would gladly stay late to finish up a project, you should try to avoid asking your assistant to stay over to get some last minute work done too. They have a life at home too.

Be courteous at all times. You can earn a lot of goodwill with an easy-going and courteous but serious style. That means don't order people about, don't raise your voice and, even if you get upset at them, try never to let your anger show. After all, being your assistant may not be easy for them either.

Express your appreciation once in a while. A sincere expression of thanks means more to most people than practically anything else. It doesn't take much effort to see the reasons you should thank your assistant.

One last thing. You should try never to leave to go home at the end of the day if you assistant is still hard at work at their desk. It's just plain bad manners. There is nothing quite as lonely and demoralizing as being the only person working in an empty office and wondering why. It's a sure-fire way to get your assistant to look at the want ads to see who's hiring.

To learn more about how to effectively and efficiently work with your legal assistant, check out the ABA podcasts called, naturally enough, "A Secretary Speaks" parts 1 and 2. It'll open your eyes to what your assistant probably thinks is obvious and what you probably never would have thought of. Be sure to listen to both parts, too, because there's lots in part 2 also.

Ronald Burdge
Helping Lawyers Practice Law Better Since 1978