Denver Bar Association
May 2004
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Under-appreciated? Just Ask a Secretary

by Kate Allison

I’ve been a loyal reader of The Docket for 11 years and it’s a good read. Though your fine publication covers virtually every aspect of practicing law with style and humor, I have never read anything about the single most important element of a successful law practice—support staff.

I’ve been a legal assistant for 15 years. When I started out, we were called secretaries and that was okay. It’s a career I’ve enjoyed immensely, despite the fact that under-appreciation seems to be the norm rather than the exception. I’m not chewing on sour grapes here. Any good lawyer worth his/her salt will tell you that they would be absolutely lost without an assistant. Lawyers are needy, especially those who can’t do more than open email. It’s simply not a good use of your time. So who’s going to do it for you, with you, and because of you? Your support staff!

After working with several interns from the local law school, I realized that baby lawyers learn the LAW, not HOW to practice it. This leaves a big hole and an even greater learning curve. Support staff is your most valuable resource in the office. There’s a lot to learn but a solid support person can help in untold ways toward building a successful law practice.

We were so under-appreciated that Hallmark gave us a holiday. It was called Secretary’s Day and we usually could count on a free lunch or maybe a nice bouquet of flowers at our desks. Now we are called lofty titles like Legal Administrative Assistant or some derivative. Some firms take the staff to fancy lunches en masse, some get to go to a baseball game and others get extravagant gift baskets. At one firm, I was delighted to be a Litigation Support Specialist and that $50 gift certificate to the local mall was really cool. All well and good, but as in any relationship, it’s the little things. The occasional "thank you" or "good job" definitely takes the sting out of the last-minute, stay-late projects that are the nature of our business.

Make no bones about it: you and your assistant are in a relationship with a capital "R." We spend eight or more hours a day working "hand-in-hand" with each other, so the arrangement should adhere to all the basic rules of a personal/domestic relationship. The lawyer who acknowledges that a support person, by whatever title, is essential and sometimes even indispensable can count on a pleasant and rewarding partnership. My favorite boss always introduced me as working WITH him, not for him, and I was proud to contribute to his practice.

Now understand, I’m not painting you as the Black Hats while we toil under hardship and abuse. There are those assistants who are always late, have perennially sick children, talk too much on the phone or just flat don’t do the work right. We all know that is unprofessional and disrespectful. But lawyers are as bad as doctors when it comes to admitting wrong. Both parties need to do what it takes to get the job done right the first time for the client. It boils down to good customer service. It doesn’t matter who did what the wrong way. Everyone makes mistakes. Acknowledge it, fix it and move on.

I now work with three young lawyers who respect me for my abilities and experience. They do not take advantage of me. Those nasty projects that no one wants to do will always be there. Grousing about them doesn’t get them done any faster and humor goes a very long way in making the task less odious. Bigger salary means bigger pressure. It’s up to the support staff to lighten the load and I’m honored to have that privilege. Even if I am the last one filing a motion on Friday afternoon, at least my margarita is brought to my desk.

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