Work + Growth

Effectively Working with Support Staff


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  • Lawyers aren’t always aware of how to best utilize their support staff
  • Know what legal assistants, paralegals, and legal secretaries are capable of (and who should be doing what) and how best to delegate
  • Positive feedback and manners will serve you well

Lawyers are often surprisingly unaware of how to best use their support staff’s talents.

It’s simply not something that is taught in law school; supervising and managing others certainly isn’t. In the best-case scenario, lawyers are simply not knowledgeable about what paralegals and legal assistants are trained to do, which can result in assigning work that is unchallenging and boring or assigning work that is more appropriate for an attorney. In the worst-case scenario, support staff are faced with treatment that is less than respectful.

Effective Delegation

Many a lawyer has a hard time letting go of the idea that to make sure something is done correctly, you must do it yourself. Get comfortable with delegating to effectively use your own and your support staff’s time and abilities. Not only will you increase productivity, but you’ll stress less. The first step to effective delegation is knowing what your paralegals and legal assistants can help you with, and which duties are best left to administrative staff. Paralegals and legal assistants conduct legal research, respond to discovery requests, interview witnesses, and cite check. Legal secretaries perform clerical work, answer phones, and transcribe dictation.

Effective delegation begins with recognizing the worth of every person on your legal team. Establish a line of communication so that you can easily convey your expectations. This will require you to put some thought into your managerial style. You also need to try on your support staff’s perspective for a moment: Are your instructions clear? Is your deadline realistic for the amount of work you’ve assigned? (Did you even give a deadline?) Are you aware of how long the tasks actually take? Taking these simple, seemingly obvious details into account will go a long way.

Support Staff Know How Things Work

If the copier jams or that light on the printer starts blinking, do you know what to do? Your support staff does. They also often know the most about how the technology used in the office works, and can teach you the ins and outs of the software they use daily if you’re not as proficient as you’d like to be. Not only do they know how things work, but they know where everything can be found and who deals with what.

Clients Often Meet Support Staff First

Depending on the size and setup of your law firm, receptionists and secretaries will be the first people your clients speak to. They may speak to them by phone several times, and then greet and direct them to you when they come into the office, and legal assistants may field emailed inquiries. Recognize and respect the value that these professionals add by making clients feel comfortable.

Feedback

Don’t underestimate the importance of feedback and learn to give it constructively. If you have a new way to perform a task, be sure to present it as a way to make the person’s job easier, instead of as something they’ve been doing wrong.

Don’t forget to give positive feedback—thanking someone for meeting a tight deadline, recognizing someone’s improvement efforts, or just a quick and simple “great job”—not only lets people know they’re on the right track but is helpful to keep morale high. When has feedback helped you?

Be careful not to micromanage, as it’s almost never necessary. If you have a competent, knowledgeable staff and you’ve given proper instructions, you shouldn’t need to control or direct every step along the way of getting an assignment done. The only time closer management and instruction might be appropriate is for a new or rarely undertaken task.

Don’t Forget Respect

In the course of a hectic and trying day in which you’re operating on only four hours of sleep, you may find your fuse a little short and your manners a bit lacking. Remember that support staff are part of your team and deserve to be treated as such. “Please” and “thank you” should remain a part of your vocabulary regardless of how stressed you are and whether or not the person you are speaking to attended law school. We’ve all met those lawyers who have an issue in this area; we never want to be that guy.

What's Next

Over the next few days, take stock of your interactions with and utilization of your support staff. Are you clear on what their skills are, and what their limitations are? Have your instructions been clear and detailed enough? Are you providing feedback, while being sure to be constructive and polite?