Horrible bosses aren’t always horrible people. Supervising others well can be a difficult skill to master, and it certainly isn’t taught in law schools. Following a few simple best practices can help you build a collaborative, supportive relationship with your support staff that will make the practice of law easier, more efficient, and less stressful.
First and foremost, follow the Golden Rule and treat your paralegals and assistants as you would want to be treated. This should go without saying, so that’s enough on that.
Listen and learn
When I entered private practice, I was 26 years old. I had never been anyone’s boss. My legal experience was limited to my 2L summer internship and a judicial clerkship. My assistant, however, had been working in law firms for almost 20 years. I may have had a big ol’ fancy diploma on the wall, but she knew way more than I did about procedures, forms, and the nitty gritty of actually practicing. Chances are, your legal assistant has much more experience than you do, and thank goodness! An experienced assistant is worth his weight in gold if you are willing to learn from him. How much easier to ask about the quirks and requirements of procedural “stuff” than trying to dig through the rules for something that may or may not exist.
Learn how your assistant does her job and ask how you can make it easier or more efficient for her. When you have to file something, does she prefer that you print it electronically as a .pdf or if you give her a hard copy to scan? If she is entering your time, what information does she need from you and what is the easiest way for you to send it to her?
Set clear expectations
Give detailed instructions on what you need done, and provide templates or examples. Your assistant is not a mind reader. If you want things done a certain way, you have to ask for it or you’re setting her up for failure. Don’t be afraid of seeming demanding or neurotic, even if you feel like you’re being really picky. You’re the boss. (That being said, refer to the second point, and be open minded if your assistant has suggestions for how to do something better.)
Respect your assistant’s time
Try not to give your assistant large projects with urgent deadlines at the last minute. It happens, especially in litigation, but good planning should help you keep it to a minimum. If you think you’re going to run up against a deadline, or possibly need your assistant to stay late, give him a heads up early in the day. Don’t ask your staff to do anything you wouldn’t do. That means no making them stay all night to fill exhibit binders while you waltz out of the office and get a full night’s sleep.
Reward excellence and commitment
A competent, loyal assistant or paralegal is far more important to a successful legal career than a diploma or a high LSAT score. Reward your assistant so she’ll remain loyal to you, even if you do occasionally goof up and give her a huge filing at 4:45 p.m. On her birthday. (Ask my assistant who’s done that.) Rewards don’t have to be monetary, although it is often appropriate to bring in a small gift right after your assistant has done something stellar. I’ve found that giving my assistant flexibility is greatly appreciated. Our assistants are real people with real lives just like ours, and they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about occasionally needing time out of the office to take care of things like doctor appointments or car maintenance or waiting around all day for the cable guy who inevitably shows up after you would have been home from work anyway.
Encourage your staff to greater excellence
When your paralegal or assistant pursues self-improvement, cheer them on. Encourage them to attend CLE or pursue additional education. Don’t stifle them because you’re afraid they’re going to get too smart and leave you. The more your assistant knows, the more helpful he will be to you. And if you give him the flexibility to achieve more education, you’re building his loyalty to you.
Tell your assistant where you are
This was a hard one for me to get used to. If you’re not going to be in your office, tell your assistant where you will be, in case anyone asks. It’s very helpful if she can tell someone where you are and when you’ll be back in the office. You don’t have to tell her personal details if you don’t want to, everything can just be a “meeting” or an “appointment.” An assistant who knows where you are and when you’ll be back appears more competent than one who has no idea that you’re not at your desk. And when she looks competent, you look more competent. It also prevents people from thinking that you’re just playing hooky.
Watch and learn
You will pretty quickly identify which attorney-assistant pairs work really well. Observe the attorneys who have good relationships with their support staff and emulate them. Dollars to donuts they’re respectful and supportive, set clear expectations, and communicate often and explicitly with their support staff.