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Relations with Support Staff… Partners’ Secretaries Outrank First-Year Associates: Deal with It!

What a heady time for the First-year Associate. You have endured three years of law professors, other law students, and law school in general. You have survived the bar examination. And now you are a newly minted attorney with a generous salary, doing important work with highly successful attorneys in plush surroundings. Your family brags about your accomplishments, and your friends believe that you are on the verge of financial freedom. While the outside world treats you like a first-round draft choice, the reality is that your life is full of stress: long hours, demanding work, bosses who expect perfection and the work done yesterday, and yes worst of all, that mountain of law school debt is now a reality.
It is easy to forget that there are very important people in the firm who do not have a J.D. The old adage to always be nice to the boss’s secretary may have been forgotten. But whether the title is secretary, administrative assistant, or paralegal, the person who organizes the schedule, guards the door, controls the communication devices, and watches out for the partner’s best interest is someone that you absolutely must get along with.
Knowledge of the law.
Although the support staff will not have that J.D. degree that you are so proud of, they often know a great deal about the practical aspects of the law. Your boss’s support personnel know the court rules, the local court customs, the preferences of the court clerks and bailiffs, and how a particular judge prefers that a form or filing be completed. They know how a document should be formatted and how many copies are required. Do you? Remember that the timeliness and quality of your work may be dependent upon the knowledge and efforts of the support staff.
Learn to listen.
Listening is a skill that must be acquired. Learning to truly listen to a peer or a superior is difficult, and learning to listen to someone that you may consider to be inferior to you in terms of knowledge or education is impossible for some attorneys. Why is listening so difficult? Because most of the time, rather than listening completely, we are framing our response before the speaker is finished. We hear the first few words and then tune out as we prepare our response.
Stephen Covey tells us in his best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that we should first seek to understand, and then seek to be understood. Covey calls this empathic communication. Covey says that we are filled with our own autobiography, and thus our conversations become collective monologues. If you acquire empathic listening skills, you can tap into and benefit from the years of valuable experience of the support staff.
Avoid creating resentments.
Engaging in empathic listening can also reduce the possibility of resentment entering the relationship that you must create with your supervising partner’s administrative assistant. An administrative assistant or secretary with years of valuable experience will react with resentment to a new associate with an inflated ego. Even if the associate is not trying to appear to be superior, resentment may creep into the relationship.
We all want to be listened to and understood, and the administrative assistant may become one of your biggest boosters if you take the time to listen and understand. People who have met former President Bill Clinton always remark that he seems to be genuinely interested in them. He will give the other person his undivided attention and his responses show that he has truly listened to them. It is very difficult to dislike or resent a person that listens to you and understands you. Empathic listening may be the key to avoiding resentment and creating goodwill with the administrative assistant.
Be a team player.
The support staff of your supervising partner are members of that partner’s team, and you should want to also be a part of that team. The secretary or paralegal is no longer just a document producer. The secretary or paralegal is often more of a manager than a clerical specialist. The partner’s secretary has worked with a number of associates, and she can help you navigate the shoals that can derail your career, assuming that you are a team player and let her assist you.
Treat the secretary or paralegal as a professional member of the team, which he or she surely is. The most successful quarterbacks realize and recognize the importance and efforts of their interior linemen. Peyton Manning treats his offensive linemen with respect, and you owe the same to your boss’s secretary or paralegal.
Your supervising partner’s secretary of administrative may have little “actual authority” in the organizational chart of the firm, but she may have a great deal of “real authority” because of her proximity to the seat of power. The associate who forgets this goes forward in the firm at his peril.