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Archive for the ‘Secretaries / paralegals’ Category

Today, April 21, 2010 is Secretary’s Day, now renamed Administrative Professional’s Day despite the fact that “legal secretary” is still the term used in the hallways of law firms.

If you are a new associate and don’t realize that today is the day to express gratitude to your secretary, don’t panic.  Walk, do not run, to the nearest flower shop and pick up a bouquet of flowers and a card.  Or, if you know your secretary doesn’t like flowers or is allergic to pollen, how about a gift certificate?  Not sure at all what your secretary’s likes and dislikes are?  Well, gift certificates to amazon or the nearest movie theater can never hurt.  Or take him or her out to lunch.

How much should you spend?  Well, this depends a lot on your relationship with your secretary, how grateful you feel, and your personal affinity to your wallet.  Some people are by their nature more generous than others.  Flowers can cost $20; they can also cost $150 depending on how fancy you want to get.  There’s a difference between taking someone to lunch at Aqua versus the local sandwich shop.  But don’t think for a minute that your secretary won’t know the difference between the two.  If you get flowers, understand that they will be publicly displayed on his or her desk for the world to see–and a reflection of how generous or cheap you are.  If you think that it won’t matter where you go for lunch, think again.

Of course, your relationship with your secretary is also a factor.  If s/he is the dream secretary–always completing tasks before you even have to ask, volunteering to stay late when there’s a court e-filing, taking the initiative to get work done, and saving your butt by catching mistakes that would have landed you in hot water with the partner in charge of the case–you better be thinking Aqua.  On the other hand, if s/he is a nightmare–reliably unreliable, consistently late or tardy, making so many errors that it takes more time for you to fix than to have done the work yourself from scratch–you should be thinking of the local sandwich shop. . . to have lunch with the head of HR.  Even under those circumstances, however, until you know for sure that HR can get you a replacement secretary, you still want to play nice.  I’m sure every secretary, no matter how bad he or she is, must have done something right at some point.  Focus on the positives and go from there.

And remember this: secretaries all talk.  They know who is cheap and who is generous, and you better believe that next time you need to ask your secretary for a special favor or bail you out, what you do today can either provide you with smooth sailing or hurl you into secretary hell.

One last piece of advice: say “thank you.”  Regardless of the gift and its price tag, secretaries–like the rest of us–are human beings.  You’d be surprised at how far you get simply by acknowledging their hard work, effort, and time in a sincere, kind manner.  It also doesn’t cost you a dime.

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In the opening scenes of the movie The Karate Kid, teenager Daniel LaRusso is bullied repeatedly by Johnny Lawrence and his gang from the Cobra Kai dojo.  One day, Mr. Miyagi sees Daniel getting beat up, and intercedes on his behalf.  Miyagi preaches restraint and compassion, but those attributes are considered by Johnny and his sensei Kreese as signs of weakness, not strength.  As moviegoers, we understand Miyagi’s reasons to take the “high road” but–deep down inside–we really want to see Daniel kick some ass.  Of course, Hollywood knows this and creates a story where Johnny “forces” Daniel into beating him.

We wrap up this week’s posts on bullies with a discussion on common situations involving bullies that occur in the workplace and how to handle them.  In general, when dealing with a staff member who is a bully, you should try to practice the Miyagi method of restraint and compassion.  First, try to understand what is causing the bullying behavior.  Observe whether it’s happening only to you or to other associates.  If no one else seems to be having a problem, then you should evaluate your own behavior to determine if that is contributing the problem.  If others are also feeling bullied, then you know it’s not personal.

Second, if this is a general problem, try to identify the specific incidents that are “bullying” and address the issues directly.  In short, you want to try to fix the issue, not the person.  Let me give you some examples.  At a law firm, one legal secretary typically supports anywhere between two to four attorneys.  Some secretaries support both associates and partners.  In this hypo, you are an entry-level associate sharing your secretary, Adrian, with a senior associate and a partner.  Adrian always puts off your work for last, giving priority to the partner and the other associate.  This is a huge problem when you have time-sensitive tasks.  When you attempt to get a status update on your work, Adrian looks at you peevishly and replies, “I’m working on a number of other things right now.  I’ll get to your stuff later.”  Clearly, Adrian is placing you at the bottom of his list of priorities.  You can either make this into something personal, and get into an argument with Adrian.  Or, you can separate the issue (skewed prioritization of work) from the person (Adrian is mean and he treats me like an afterthought).

Here’s another example.  Often, you are staffed as an associate on a case with one or more partners.  The legal team may be comprised of numerous attorneys, all of whom have different secretaries.  So when a partner asks you to do something, and there is some secretarial work attached to the task, do you ask your own secretary to do it, or do you instruct the partner’s secretary to do it?  What do you do if your secretary tells you that it’s really the partner’s project, so it’s the partner’s secretary that is responsible for it?  What if you then go to the partner’s secretary and he says, sorry but I don’t take orders from you because I already support three attorneys and you aren’t one of them?

Finally, what do you do with the secretary or paralegal that gets in your face, openly questioning or criticizing your way of doing things?

These situations happen frequently in the law firm environment, and how you handle them can very well determine your own image at the firm, and how far you’ll go.  Here are some solutions to the above problems.

The “you are last priority” staff member — An effective way to deal with this is to provide firm deadlines for your projects.  Also, make it clear if you need something by a certain time, and make it understood why you need it by that time.  In other words, if you tell your secretary that you need a brief editing by noon, your secretary may think it’s an arbitrary internal deadline.  On the other hand, if you work in California, and you say, “I need this brief edited by noon because partner X needs to look at it one more time and it needs to be e-mailed to local counsel in New York by 1 p.m. because of the three hour time difference and the court closes at 5 p.m. EST” you will usually get the desired response.  For truly uncooperative staff, you may need to pin them down and extract a promise that the work will be done by the deadline.

The “pass the hot potato” secretary — Whether a job is for the partner’s secretary or your secretary depends on a number of factors.  First, there is usually a secretary that is assigned to be the case secretary, someone who manages the case file and is generally responsible for it.  That may be the partner’s secretary or yours, depending on your level of involvement in the case and secretarial workload issues.  Second, who does the work may very well depend on who happens to have the time, especially if it’s a rush project.  Sometimes, staff are overwhelmed with requests coming from multiple directions, so you need to be sensitive to that.  Third, figure out whether the task is really something that the partner directly instructed to be done, or whether it’s something that you independently believe needs to be done.  All of these factors may help you figure out who is the person suited to the task.  If you get “push back” from a partner’s secretary, after considering all the factors, a tip that helps is to say, “Partner X instructed me to tell you to do this.”  In other words, it’s not me (the associate) giving you work; I’m just the messenger and if you have a problem with it, deal with Partner X.  If it’s your own secretary telling you no, you need to impress upon him why he’s the proper person to do the job.

The “openly critical” staff member — Generally, it’s best to resolve these issues in private.  This is the hardest because it feels the most personal.  You don’t want to have a staff member sully your reputation within the firm, so the temptation is to respond publicly.  The best way to handle these situations is to call the staff member into your office for a closed door meeting.  Sometimes, these disagreements can be discussed without the risk of public humiliation on either side.  If that doesn’t work, it may be the case that you will have to get the office administrator or HR involved.  If it’s possible not to have to work with that individual, avoidance is also a possibility.  As a last resort (and I mean AS A LAST RESORT), if the staff member is simply out of control, throwing diatribes and verbally abusing you constantly, and none of the above methods work or the firm implicitly condones the behavior or chooses not to do anything about it, go ahead and fight back.  Sadly, sometimes you have to show power, authority, and a backbone because nothing else works.

Sometimes, life imitates art.

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Every firm has at least one: the secretary with the “holier than thou” attitude; the senior paralegal who tries to assign work to a junior associate; the office administrator who tries to tell you how to run your case.

A reader posted this question the other day: “[C]ould you write about bullying of junior associates by support staff like paralegals and secretaries? I would be interested in that one…yeah.”

Let me start by offering a distinction between perceived bullying and actual bullying.  Perceived bullying is when a junior associate feels threatened when a secretary or paralegal has greater knowledge and makes it known.  Actual bullying is, well, bullying — verbal or psychological abuse or intimidation.  Put downs, screaming, punching… okay, maybe not punching, but you get the idea.

Actual bullying is in some ways the simpler of the two to address.  Bullies will always exist in this world.  They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are certainly not limited to support staff.  There are partner bullies and associate bullies.  You can spot a bully a mile away for his or her ability to intimidate and threaten others.  These are the people who everyone tries to avoid, no one wants to deal with, and almost no one crosses.  They transcend class, gender, age — but they have one thing in common: they are tolerated by the firm.  Surprisingly, bullies are generally accommodated and given wide latitude to roam the halls and terrorize their victims.  Why?  Because they tend to be incredibly competent.  If they weren’t, they’d be thrown out in a billable minute.  Bad attitude + bad work product = fired.  Unfortunately, bullies–despite their bad attitudes–are actually productive, competent workers (sometimes the best at what they do), and their attitudes are therefore forgiven, ignored, or otherwise swept under the rug.

Perceived bullying, on the other hand, is a more complicated issue.  In this scenario, when a junior associate feels like he or she is being “bullied,” it may arise from the fact that the particular staff member has superior knowledge or experience.  This happens frequently at law firms, yet it’s an issue that generally does not get addressed.  Here’s the scene: entry-level associate “Junior” waltzes into large, prestigious BigLaw firm armed with a J.D. from Stanford or Harvard.  Junior has succeeded his entire life; he’s a winner.  BigLaw is his very first job.  He is smart as all heck, but as green as a cucumber.  He can analyze fact patterns better than anyone else, but doesn’t know the first thing about practicing law.  Junior has no clue that a brief filed in the C.D. Cal requires 14 point font, doesn’t know whether or not to count weekends when calendaring, doesn’t realize that he needs to have a document production copied before reviewing it.

Along comes our legal secretary “Mandy.”  She’s had 25 years of legal experience as a secretary, and has spent the last 18 years at BigLaw firm.  She knows the court filing procedures of every district in the state like the back of her hand.  Federal court, state court, appeals court–you name it, she knows it.  Mandy is not an actual bully, but at her age, she has little tolerance for young first-years like Junior telling her what to do when it’s clear he doesn’t have the slightest clue.  So when Junior tells her the way in which to file a brief, she tells him he’s wrong, and it has to be done another way.

Bullying?  or just necessary growing pains for Junior?

It’s a complex issue because so much of it depends on context.  In the example above, Junior was simply wrong.  And if you’re wrong, and your secretary corrects you, I’d hope that you would be thanking her for saving your butt instead of getting defensive over a perceived breach of etiquette.  On the other hand, there are grayer areas, multiple ways in which to do something where Junior may want to have it done one way and Mandy says, no, I’ve been doing it this way for years and I’m not changing now, especially for a young squirt like you.  Those issues can be addressed, but in delicate ways.  That will be the subject of a future post.  For now, I leave you with this thought:

If you feel like you’ve been bullied, ask yourself this: is Mandy really an actual bully, or are you just sensitive to the fact that you don’t have a clue as to what you’re doing?

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