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The Legal Assistant’s Lament and the Lawyer’s Reply

"What is your biggest frustration in your work as a legal assistant?" Earlier this year, a lawyer posed this question to a number of legal assistants when preparing for a luncheon address. When I read the responses, I was struck by the common theme. While I soon realized that these responses could form the basis for an article here, I knew it was important to have input from some lawyers lest this thing take the appearance of lawyer-bashing. Their responses, too, are thought-provoking.

First, from the legal assistants:
Communicate, communicate, communicate! We can't always read their minds. Always include legal assistants in strategy conferences, etc. Team work is critical with associates, legal assistants and lead counsel.

Keep the team informed and involved. The more heads working on a case the better. There is less chance of a missed deadline, procedural error, strategy error, etc., if everyone on the "team" is kept involved and updated.

Communication. It seems the legal assistants after every telephone call or contact with a client discuss the contact with the attorney either by memo or [other] discussion. The attorneys don't usually "report" their activity in the same way or at all. Then the legal assistant is usually only half informed or unaware of a change in direction, etc.

Communicating fee expectations to clients and updating clients as fee expectations increase or change.

Be focused on the project when it's time to discuss it. In other words, value the legal assistant's time just as if it were your own. If you're too busy, too tired or too focused on something else, then arrange a different time when you can be ready. It is not only disheartening to try to discuss something with someone who isn't really paying attention, but it can be frightening if the matter at hand may have a significant impact on your case.

I think attorneys need to have a little better communication and plan a little better. For instance, if something needs to be done quickly, please give us a little notice so we're not rushing and getting frustrated. Or if you've taken care of something, please inform us so we don't spend our time doing the same thing.

Make sure instructions are complete - mind-reading is not an option; better communication skills; don't eat while dictating; treat your legal assistants in a courteous and professional manner: don't shoot the messenger! keep all team members appraised of status on files: who's doing what, so that duplicate work isn't done; if an attorney is handling something himself, let others know; if you are out, let team members know -"hide & seek" is not an office game.

These legal assistants are frustrated by basically the same thing. Although they mention the lack of clear and complete instructions and little or no input into advance planning, underlying all of them is inadequate communication. Indeed, communication is the single most important criterion for a successful lawyer/legal assistant relationship, yet it presents the biggest challenge. While some of these responses may elicit a chuckle or two, particularly from legal assistants, they do offer some sound suggestions for lawyers to assist legal assistants in doing a better job:

Include the legal assistant (and other team members) in strategy conferences, and keep everyone apprised of who has been assigned what, particularly if later on the lawyer decides to handle a particular phase of the project himself. Be prepared to listen when the time comes to discuss the work assignments and/or answer questions.

* Let the legal assistant know of significant client contacts, tactical changes, deadline changes, etc.
* Work with the legal assistant when setting deadlines and other priorities.
* Take a moment to think through instructions to make sure they are complete so that the work received is what was actually wanted.
* Keep the legal assistant (and the rest of the team) apprised of everyone's schedules ahead of time as much as possible.

And the Lawyers' Reply:

* Be prepared and on time for a scheduled meeting.
* When in doubt, ask for clarification or further direction.
* If an impromptu discussion is necessary, inquire first whether the time is appropriate and indicate how much time the legal assistant needs (is it a quick question, a detailed discussion, a status meeting?).
* Remind the lawyer of conflicting deadlines as it is just possible that one or more may have changed. If not, let the lawyer determine the priority.
* Be realistic in deciding what needs the lawyer's immediate attention.
* If you don't know, say so. Don't guess and present it as fact. Never be afraid to say, "I don't know, but I will find out." And then do so.

Something for us all to consider. And as for eating while dictating. . .

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 7, 2002 1:26 AM.

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