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How to Manage Your First Legal Assistant

September 2008
A young lawyer offers advice on how to develop a productive working relationship with your assistant, to the benefit of your practice and your sanity.

When you hire or receive your first legal assistant, you may not know how to manage your legal assistant -- let alone yourself. This article is designed to give you some helpful hints for working with your first legal assistant.

The first time that you have someone working for you, it can be intimidating, especially if he or she is older or more experienced than you. Managing an employee can be especially challenging if the legal assistant has a difficult or dominating personality. He or she may be quite comfortable running the office and you.

After I had been practicing on my own for two years, I made the mistake of hiring a legal assistant who was extremely controlling and considerably senior to me in age and experience. When I would give her instructions on how I wanted a letter to the client to look she would ignore me and write the letter how she thought it should be written. It was difficult at the time to remember that I was the boss and she needed to follow my instructions on how things needed to be done in my office. I found that I had to keep reminding myself that this was my office – the one that I had worked so hard to get – and that the letters going out the door needed to represent the standard for what I wanted. If she had not made the mistake of looking for a new job - both on my time and on my computer - and gotten fired, we would have continued to have power struggles over who was in charge of the office and how things should be done.

My next legal assistant was much easier to deal with. She was more experienced than I was about legal procedures and how things in a law office actually work. I was so grateful that she knew how to issue a subpoena (do not forget to invite the court reporter) and what the standard was for obtaining a restraining order. Unfortunately, whether it is easy or hard, you are the hierarchical leader and the one who is responsible for the legal assistant’s professional conduct. (See ABA Model Rule 5.3 Responsibilities Regarding Non-lawyer Assistants.)

Not only does law school not prepare you for how to practice law, law school does not teach you how to manage, encourage and supervise your legal assistant.


Managing Projects With Your Legal Assistant

Remember that you need balance in how you manage projects that you delegate to your legal assistant. You do not want to be hovering over your legal assistant’s shoulder asking when a project will be completed, while at the same time you do not want an important project to be set aside or forgotten. Tell your legal assistant how to and how frequently you want him or her to communicate with you during the day about tasks in progress. Do you want your legal assistant to write you a note, send you an email, send an instant message or drop into your office? In our office, we use Windows Messenger to send each other instant messages about questions or comments that we have about client matters. We also use our case management program (Time Matters) to record to-do items and task completion.

Remember that asking your legal assistant to report back after every task will likely interrupt the flow of work and make your legal assistant feel like you are treating them like a kindergartener. Try to reserve the request for immediate information after a task is completed only for very important or critically urgent tasks. For example, do not hesitate to ask your legal assistant immediately what the Court said, what happened with continuing the hearing, or is the client coming in today to sign documents.

When you first begin working with your legal assistant, going over the expectations for projects will take extra time. Hopefully, your legal assistant will learn your style, and what you expect. The goal is to get to a place where you are confident that your legal assistant did the work correctly and on time.


Encourage Your Legal Assistant

You will have to learn how to review completed tasks and give information about things that can be improved. It can be difficult to learn how to give feedback that is helpful and complete. Try to tell your legal assistant what he or she is doing correctly and what areas need improvement. For example, “thank you for taking the initiative to find out the answer to the client’s question and your call to give them an answer….and please be more careful about checking your spelling.” Sometimes managers make the mistake of only giving negative feedback because they want to be seen as strong. Do not forget that positive constructive feedback can be a good motivator. Make sure that you compliment your assistant on a job well done. If you say nothing, your legal assistant may believe that you disapprove. Your silence can be very discouraging and de-motivating.

You also want to think about what rewards might be appropriate for your legal assistant. Each person is different and you need to understand what motivates that person. Not everyone is motivated strictly by the money. Your legal assistant may prefer flexible hours or different benefits.

Depending on your firm situation, you may not be able to have much influence of what types of benefits or rewards are offered to staff. If you do not have much control over your legal assistant’s work hours or benefits, think of creative ways to show your appreciation – take him or her to lunch, give a gift certificate, or simply write a thank you card for work well done. If you are in a smaller firm or solo, you may have a great deal of latitude about giving your legal assistant things that matter more to them. My legal assistant prefers to have work hours that start a bit later in the morning and end later in the evening. Your legal assistant may want permission to take an hour and half lunch break.


Communication With Your Legal Assistant

You may want to take time each day to review what needs to be done today, this week, or this month with your legal assistant. You might ask him or her to review what is on your agenda, check it against your list and add a few things to it if he or she missed something. Depending upon your communication style or personality, it may make sense to follow up with an email. You could also ask him or her to email you a summary of your conversation so it will be both handy and clear. Then you would both have an agreement and record of upcoming tasks and activities.

You need to insure that you are communicating what you want clearly to your legal assistant. Make sure that your employee understands what you mean when you tell him or her to “Call Client X and see when he or she is available for the deposition.” Do you mean call the client and give you a list of dates when they are available and you will pick the date? Or do you mean, arrange a date for the deposition with the client, put it on my calendar, schedule the Court Reporter, and send out a confirming letter to the client? Either might be inferred from your initial statement – so focus on directness and clarity.

Remember that you are not only supervising for the present, but also for the future. You need to make sure that you provide an environment where your legal assistant can learn from his or her mistakes, develop new skills and take on new responsibilities. You are not the only person looking for development in your position.


Helpful Hints.

  • Delegate for results. Let your legal assistant know what you need done specifically, and let her or him figure out how to do it.
  • Help your legal assistant prioritize the work that you them.
  • Think of you and your legal assistant as a team -- and act accordingly.
  • Let your legal assistant be a manager. Give this person the authority and responsibility needed to fulfill a management role -- and confirm this responsibility in the job description.
  • Show your legal assistant your appreciation for a job well done.
  • Say please and thank you. Offer and encourage training.
  • Listen. Your legal assistant may know more about certain things than you do.
  • Do not lie to your legal assistant, and do not ask your legal assistant to lie on your behalf.
  • Tell your legal assistant when you leave the office, when you will return, how to reach you, and whether anything urgent or important is expected while you are out. For your legal assistant, nothing is worse than not understanding what the client or the Court is asking about while you are unavailable or out of the office.
  • Introduce your legal assistant to your clients, Court staff, and other professionals.
  • Keep your personal problems to yourself and do not burden your legal assistant with issues that are better discussed with a friend.
  • Do not blame your legal assistant for mistakes or screw-ups. You are ultimately responsible for his or her work product to the client.
  • Make a regular schedule of sitting down with your legal assistant and listening to his or her concerns and questions.
  • Do not wait until your legal assistant is receiving his or her annual review to let them know what the goals should have been.
  • Make sure from the beginning that there is a clear job description that you and the legal assistant understand.

P.S. If my first legal assistant is reading this article, she is laughing hysterically. Many thanks to Candace Mason, my first legal assistant, who was very kind when I was a new lawyer and she knew how to do my job better than I did.

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About the Author

Jennifer L. Rice is a solo practitioner practicing in Colorado and is an active member of the YLD division of the ABA. She can be reached at the Rice Law Office, P.C., Fort Collins, Colorado.

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