How Supervising Attorneys Can Gain the Respect of Their Legal Assistants
“You can buy a man’s time; you can buy his physical presence at a given place; you can even buy a measured number of his skilled muscular motions per hour. But you cannot buy enthusiasm... you cannot buy initiative... you cannot buy loyalty.... you cannot buy the devotion of hearts, minds or souls. You must earn these.” - Clarence Francis
Clarence Francis has eloquently defined the fruit of respect’s labour. There is no doubt that it is the jobs of legal assistants to please their attorneys, however, legal assistants will put more pride and effort into their work if they feel they are being treated with professional and personal respect. Individual strengths, weaknesses, experience levels, familial needs, the human tendency to err, sensitivities, etc. are all unique to each of us and play a significant role in human relations. Therefore, it may seem difficult to garner respect when conflicting ideas and needs may exist between attorneys and their assistants.
Coaching, Managing, Leading, Counseling, AND Administrative Tasks Are ALL Management Responsibilities
An important element to earning respect is for an attorney or supervisor to know when to coach, when to manage, when to lead, when to counsel, or when to administrate. This means distinguishing between authority and influence, clearly communicating rather than controling, and listening before leaping. When orders are barked out or criticizisms are made un-constructively, attorneys will likely receive negativity and resentment in return. Nor can an attorney cultivate respect by demanding the impossible. Delegate with the realization that all tasks take time and if a task is urgent, say so when the assignment is made. Otherwise, trust your assistant to prioritize his/her workload. This involves and empowers your assistant, which in turn, fosters respect. Be appreciative of the fact that some assistants work for several attorneys and may have 12-24 projects in the hopper at any given time. Also be appreciative of the fact that this may mean your assistant works on 3-4 times the number of files that you do and his/her memory may not be as sharp!
The Do's and Don'ts of Good Management
“Save it for Later” is respect’s best seller. If your assistant does all of his/her own photocopying, don’t catch him/her at the copy machine to rattle off your next “to do” list. Likewise, do not delegate an assignment in the middle of an urgent or complex project when you can send an e-mail or write a note and leave it at his/her desk. NEVER slip a note under the restroom door (believe it or not, it’s been done!) Consider the fact that the more interruptions one has, the higher one’s frustration level, and frustration breeds disrespect!
Circle before landing. If your assistant is on the phone, don’t hover over his/her shoulder waiting for the call to end unless it’s necessary. Instead, leave a note that you need to be contacted after the call. When you ask your assistant to make a phone call on your behalf, don’t talk to him/her in one ear while he/she is trying to hear with the other. Simple but true, these are basic commandments for earning respect. Avoid comments such as “you don’t understand!” Do not cut your assistant off in mid-sentence, particularly in a public setting. If you have to ask, “are you mad at me?” the answer is generally “yes!” Do not roll your eyes at your assistant (unless you do it privately!) Facial expressions can be blatantly humiliating. Instead, consider that your assistant is very busy or did not want or need the dissertation he/she received to effectively carry out your request! The best place to begin garnering respect is with yourself.
Align and extend your relationship with your assistant. Be straightforward, yet diplomatic. This increases respect, while ambiguity and rudeness decreases it. Public criticisms and group meetings which are designed to flesh out those who are delinquent with tasks usually do more to destroy respect than generate it. Publicly or privately humiliating someone is abusive. Although reprimands are sometimes necessary, avoid giving them in settings which reduce confidence levels. Instead, isolate and specify the behavior and/or action you consider unprofessional in his/her conduct or work product. If the conduct is questionable, give your assistant an opportunity to tell his/her side of the story before taking action. Afterward, identify with objectivity and courtesy, the outcome should your assistant fail to rectify the problem. Both formal and informal performance appraisals and reprimands have lasting effects.
The Setting for the Performance Appraisal is as Important as the Appraisal
Further, avoid performance appraisal settings which may intimidate or humiliate your assistant. Consider how many attorneys and/or administrative representatives of the firm actually need to be present for an appraisal. In place of a ‘performance team,’ give your assistant a tangible evaluation which clearly sets forth performance accomplishments, goals and deficiencies. Criticize only when necessary. It is well established that praise and encouragement achieve better results. Recognize that your job sometimes involves people problems although you may consider it drudge work. Each of your assistants have an individual personality. You can help avoid conflict by striving to identify and eliminate stressors in the work place.
Do Unto Others Is a Good Place to Start
As Attorney Leland Smith suggests, “we all have different personalities and idiosyncracies which are pooled to form the legal team. The team is best served when we all work together in a spirit of mutual respect, the ultimate goal being to serve our clients well.”
Utilizing the “do unto others” approach keeps words and purpose flowing smoothly. While there will always be misunderstandings, conduct yourself with a genuine professional interest in your assistant and recognize that your assistant considers him or herself a professional.
Respect is more frequently reciprocated and never effectively demanded.