Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Los Angeles Lawyer Magazine and was written by Karina Sterman, one of ECJ’s Employment Department partners. It discusses the relationship between new lawyers and their legal secretaries. While this may not pique the interest of our typical reader, the article includes insights that can be broadly applied to any supervisor-subordinate relationship. We hope you find it useful.
Like most law school graduates, I never had a secretary until I started working as an attorney at a law firm. She was a seasoned legal secretary, and I shared her with a senior partner. I accepted that I was not her top priority until she came to my office and said that she was too busy to print out draft versions of my undoubtedly life-altering legal research memorandum. This was a problem because she, not I, had access to the printer. She asked me to do my own edits on my computer so she would only need to print out the final version of my memo. Despite my inexperience, her demand intuitively felt wrong, so I pulled rank and spoke to the managing partner about my secretary’s new rule. Needless to say, my secretary never forgave me, and I never forgot the lessons I learned from that experience.
The pitfalls for a new attorney dealing with a legal secretary are many. Indeed, there are infinite ways to botch what can be one of the most important relationships an attorney can have in his or her professional life. Some new attorneys are scared and intimidated by their secretaries. New attorneys may feel that because of their inexperience, they are less important than the more senior attorney with whom they may be sharing a secretary. As a result, new attorneys may be willing to accept sometimes inappropriate behavior from their secretaries. These attorneys often avoid asking their secretaries for help and proceed to do their own filing, mailing, and photocopying; in essence, they become their own secretaries.
Other new attorneys, on the other hand, relish their new power and wield it at every opportunity. These attorneys are part of legal lore, notorious for having their secretaries pick up their dry cleaning and for blaming their secretaries when they themselves miss deadlines. Still, there are attorneys who strive so hard to have their secretaries like them that they blur the lines of professionalism and become too friendly with their secretaries. These attorneys often do their own secretarial work because they are uncomfortable telling their “friend” what to do and they risk offending their secretaries when it is time to pull rank.
None of these relationship types, however, is inevitable or irreversible. Efficient and appropriate working relationships can be achieved if attorneys follow some basic guidelines.
Set the tone of the relationship. In the early stages of a working relationship between an attorney and a secretary, the attorney should decide what kind of relationship will be most comfortable and productive. Initial interactions are often critical, making it very difficult to change the level of formality—or informality—later on. A balanced relationship is the ideal. Be friendly and considerate but also authoritative.
Set forth clear guidelines. When establishing a relationship with a secretary, attorneys should take the time to determine their own preferences with respect to the day-to-day details of their practices. Consider how you will communicate with your secretary (via e-mail, voice mail, shouting), how you want your letters to look, how you want your filing arranged, and whether you expect your work to be proofread, among other considerations. Also, attorneys should address the less obvious issues, such as how the phone should be answered, how much case information should be disclosed, and how much socializing by the secretary is acceptable. The clearer your instructions, the fewer mistakes and disappointments.
Treat your secretary like the valuable asset he or she is. Good legal secretaries today are estimable commodities who command high salaries and good working conditions. Take advantage of this. Many of the details that new lawyers must master are learned on the job. An experienced secretary is an excellent source of crucial information that can be obtained without reinventing the wheel. Ask your secretary questions. You will learn quickly, you will make someone feel important, and you will both benefit.
Keep your secretary informed. When you are away from your office, let your secretary know where you are, when you are expected to return, and where you can be reached. Also, keep your secretary informed of the progress of your cases. Discuss why you are bringing a particular motion or why you are writing a certain correspondence. Case- and client-specific details allow your secretary to communicate better with clients. Not only that, your secretary will be encouraged to participate at a higher and more productive level. Linda Moore, a legal secretary for over 12 years, says, “I want to work with someone and not just for someone.”
Have realistic expectations. No matter how much experience a legal secretary has, the secretary is not the attorney. Do not ask the secretary to do the job of an attorney.
Take responsibility. You are ultimately responsible for your secretary’s actions. When an error is made, no matter who made it, take responsibility for your own work. Your secretary answers to you, but you answer to the client, the partner in charge, and the court.
Communicate. No matter how long you work with a secretary, do not be disappointed when he or she still cannot read your mind. Lawyers are trained to verbalize. Practice with your secretary.
Respect. You get what you give.