THE SUPPORT OF THE SUPPORT STAFF
Danielle Aptekar and Alexandra Duran
New York Law Journal
June 14, 2001
The professional relationship between
attorney and support staff is an integral part of the practice of
law. For many, the summer associate experience may be the initial
exposure to this sort of relationship. This aspect of practice is
often overlooked due to information overload and softball in Central
Park. In addition to cocktail parties and long lunches, however, the
summer provides exposure to what will be a major part of your transition
Law offices can seem like a conglomerate of small consulting firms
under one umbrella. There are many different individuals there to
assist you in your work: secretaries, paralegals, creative design
specialists, proofreaders, librarians ... . The list goes on and on.
Beginning at the summer associate level and increasing exponentially
as you develop as an attorney, your efficiency, productivity and ability
to manage your time become dependent on your relationship with these
internal consultants and service providers.
The role of summer associate is a complicated one. On the one hand,
you are a "guest" of the firm for the summer, and on the other, it
may be the longest job interview you will ever have in your life!
It may also be your first ever "real" job where you are taken seriously
by most everyone, except when you're not. Some of the assignments
you will be given will be "make work." Others will only seem that
way even though they may be a fundamental part of a larger matter.
There is pressure for you to get your assignments done quickly, efficiently
and correctly while building professional alliances along the way.
There are some actions that you can take that will improve your likelihood
of accomplishing this goal. Incorporating them into your summer strategy
will introduce you to the infrastructure of the firm, enhance your
probability of a permanent offer and will certainly increase your
Introduce yourself to all the support staff right away. Life is all
about personal relationships, and the workplace is no different.
How you initiate your professional relationships will most certainly
be how they will continue. Start building positive relationships before
a crisis ensues. The time to meet everyone is not when you are in
a moment of stress and hyperactivity on a deadline. Instead, meet
these individuals when you are composed and brimming with enthusiasm
and good will.
Your goal is to learn what services they offer, how their departments
function, what they will need from you in order to use their services
effectively and efficiently, and for you to generally understand their
unique role in the firm before you need them. Equally important, learn
and remember the names of the people you meet.
Practice Tip: Organize all the information you will regularly need
on one small sheet of paper that you carry with you at all times.
Include your telephone and fax numbers; long-distance telephone and
other unique codes; copy machine number; client matter numbers; the
names of your colleagues and their direct telephone numbers; etc.
Everyone's Opinion Matters
Each and every member of the practice, attorneys and nonattorneys,
may be influential in whether you receive an offer at the end of the
summer. In addition to high-quality work, firms are looking for associates
who can get along well with key members of the firm's infrastructure.
The perception of you as a good addition to the team is enhanced when
members of the support staff find your conduct respectful, dignified
Keep in mind that first impressions are difficult to change. Treat
everyone with respect and courtesy. Staff members speak with one another
and with partners and associates. Do not underestimate their ability
to influence the outcome of your summer experience. Very often they
have worked for the firm for a long time and have developed relationships
that transcend their titles. Undoubtedly, their opinion of you will
be taken into account.
Who Can Help With What
Legal Personnel. The members of this department may provide a good
source of advice and mentoring. These professionals have a vested
interest in your being successful and are, therefore, a vital resource
for you. Get to know them and appreciate their role in the summer
program and in the firm's overall recruiting effort. They can advise
you on how to internally market yourself to get good assignments to
round out your experience. They can also fill you in on the unwritten
rules of firm etiquette (for example, is there an open door policy?
is it for real? what are the consequences, if any, for circumventing
the assignment partner? how is pro bono work really valued at the
Secretarial Support. As a summer associate, you will likely be the
third or fourth person -- after a partner and associate(s) more senior
to you -- assigned to a single secretary. Secretaries are plugged
in to the various systems of the firm (for example, accounting, the
mailroom, archives) and can expedite your knowledge of and access
to these systems upon request. A secretary can also be a valuable
ally in how the rest of the firm perceives you -- "on top of your
assignments," and "confidently in control of your work."
Secretaries often know the "scoop" on the attorneys you may have the
opportunity to work with. They may have prepared work for these lawyers
before and know exactly what their expectations may be for the finished
product (visual and/or organization of the material).
Information Technology. Familiarize yourself with the firm's information
technology quickly. Early computer training can save time down the
road when an important document must be produced under a strict deadline.
Take the time to learn to do the basics, such as word processing and
using the network, for yourself. This will enable you to avoid squandering
the valuable time you will have with your secretary. Most firms have
Help Desks and networking applications staff. Consult these staff
persons first. Develop these relationships early on and nurture them
well. If you ask for advice from the Help Desk, word processing, the
network applications staff or your secretary, then your burden on
any one staff member will be minimized and appreciated by everyone.
You also demonstrate to individual staff that you recognize their
expertise, knowledge and experience.
Word processing can make all the difference in the visual impact and
presentation of your work product. Ask for assistance in making your
work an easy-to-read, easy-to-comprehend, visually appealing document.
The word processing experts have so many ideas available for the asking!
For example, ask if a chart will work better than dense text; what
font works well in a particular type of document; or whether the firm
has a format preference.
The Reprographics Department. Members of this department can also
contribute to the visual impact of your presentation as well as your
duplication needs. Make it a point to learn what kinds of jobs they
handle on a normal turnaround schedule in-house. Note that some jobs
require complicated set-ups, including imaging, presentation boards
and oversized color copies, that may require special off-site equipment
and longer turnaround times. Obtaining this information ahead of time
will ensure that when projects arise they can be completed on schedule.
The Librarians of any firm are hidden treasures. They can assist you
in honing your research skills quickly and thinking creatively in
finding solutions and answers to your questions and problems. Often
underappreciated, librarians make powerful problem-solving partners
for summer associates who demonstrate their appreciation with good
manners and respect for the librarians' professional skill.
Paralegals can add tremendous value to any work product that you have
been assigned. A paralegal's attention to detail can produce excellent
research results, properly bate-stamped discovery documents, well-organized
deal documents and a myriad of other detail-oriented assignments that
are critical aspects of an efficient practice of law.
Thus, respecting and accepting the expertise of support staff provides
an opportunity to learn the less apparent details that make or break
an assignment. These experienced staff can advise you, give you the
heads-up on what to expect, and explain the quickest, easiest, most
reliable way to complete your assignment.
Make your expectations and needs clear. Do not assume that anyone
understands your concerns or that they are obvious or routine. Write
them down legibly. Check back with staff and ask them to explain the
task in their own words. Come to a meeting of the minds on how to
proceed and the time line. Do not create false deadlines! You will
never appreciate it if it is done to you. Ask for a realistic estimate
of how much time it will take and when the assignment may be completed.
Explain that time will be needed to proof the work and make revisions.
As certain how many staff members will be required to complete an
assignment (you may wish to do this in consultation with a senior
attorney or with the administrator of the support staff department
who has experience staffing this type of assignment). Notify everyone
in advance so that employees may be scheduled and priorities may be
shifted, if needed.
Write out all instructions in clear, concise language. Become an "insider"
-- use the language of that department. For example, terms for the
reprographics department might be "pagination" and "straight run."
Leave your number wherever you may be reached so that questions may
be easily and quickly resolved.
Always provide a context and background for the assignment. Colleagues
feel included and invested in the success of an assignment when they
understand its importance and their role in its pending outcome.
You will derive greater job satisfaction, and stress will be minimized,
if you feel in control of your work assignments. Thus, prioritize
multiple assignments to better the odds of their timely completion
and share this with the support staff whose work contribution you
Conflict or performance issues get inflamed with the lapse of time
and with indirect communication. Address your concerns timely, politely,
and quietly with whomever is involved. Make a sincere attempt to reach
a resolution without reporting the difficulty to the supervisor of
the support staff member.
Face time still works best! Meet with a support staff member when
asking for assistance on an assignment. At the moment, it may be easier
to delegate by phone, fax or email; however, over time, you will save
more time and avoid aggravation if you speak in person with your colleagues.
Questions get asked and advice may be more readily given in the "grease"
and "ease" of the conversation that may be overlooked or withheld
in a more distant form of communication. The effort to go to someone's
office (support staff offices are usually not located in the physical
hub of the office) also demonstrates the value you place in their
Good manners and civility do matter. Be the first to say, "good morning"
and "good night;" "please" and "thank you;" "may I?" and "would you?"
Your interpersonal communication skills will be appreciated and remembered.
Do not raise your voice regardless of the stress you are under. Remove
yourself and manage your stress behind closed doors or on a walkabout
outside the building.
Listen well and mean it! Ask for guidance, assistance and opinions
and then really consider them in your decision on how to proceed.
If you do decide to act in a different way, explain there are other
considerations so individuals do not feel it was just an exercise.
Otherwise, next time, these same staff members may not proffer their
ideas, thinking they will just be discounted. And, perhaps, you will
not be saved from a mistake or a time-consuming false step.
Be discreet. Do not discuss expensive purchases or expenditures in
front of or with staff. You are perceived by some to be "still wet
behind the ears" and they may be sterling professionals in their own
right and still, their compensation is probably far less than yours.
Good boundaries make for good colleagues. Master the art of being
personable without being nosy, inquiring or intimate about the details
of your life or theirs. It is not an equal relationship! Although
you are passing through this workplace for the summer, you are already
on your path to becoming an admitted attorney and eventually, perhaps,
the supervisor and evaluator of this individual's work product. You
are not, at least at this point in time, their friend.
Stay in the moment and manage these professional relationships in
the here and now. If you are perceived to be respectful of individuals
and their talents now, they will anticipate working with you now and
in the future. Remember to honestly praise good work!
You need to be perceived as a good fit! If people enjoy working with
you, they will be drawn to you and will take an interest in your success.
They will offer ideas to you, collaborate with you, answer your phone
if your secretary steps away and provide a favorable opinion of you
when anyone inquires.
Make sure you take the time to say goodbye to everyone you have had
the opportunity to work with during the summer. Thank them for their
support and for the time and consideration they extended to you. If
a permanent offer is extended, you may have an opportunity to work
with them again. Your courtesy will be remembered.
Why do all of this?
By practicing these guidelines at the start of your career, you will
develop excellent work habits that will lead to numerous long-term
benefits. You will learn how to manage work, compute its value, determine
the cost of overhead, and generally run cases, deals and client relationships.
You will also gain valuable insight into the business of practicing
law. By strategically engaging support staff in your work assignments,
you will benefit from their expertise, and derive greater job satisfaction
as a member of the team.
Danielle Aptekar is director of career services at New York Law School.
Alexandra Duran, a former general counsel of Fashion Institute of
Technology who first began practicing law with a large New York firm
as a summer associate, is founder and principal of Career Transitioning
and coaches attorneys in advancing their careers.
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