My response to an r/lawyers question about working with staff

I occasionally browse r/lawyers on Reddit for various Legal Ops questions, and the other day I answered this one:

For the past few years, I’ve been an associate at a small 4-attorney firm, my first out of law school. No support staff beyond a receptionist and a bookkeeper, and so I’m very used to doing my own everything.

I’ll be starting at a new firm in a couple weeks, that does actually have support staff–paralegals, an office manager, I’ll actually have a legal assistant to share. The responses in that other thread have made it very clear to me that an enormous amount of the work that I’ve been doing is work typically done by support staff, and so I’m going to have to get into the habit of letting them actually do their jobs in order to do mine. I know a big part of that will be how the new firm uses their support staff, and what the staff’s strengths and weaknesses are, but if anyone’s got any tips on learning how to make this kind of transition, I’d love to hear them.

My response is below.

What is your current personal productivity toolset? In other words, how do you keep track of the things you need to get done on a daily/weekly/monthly basis? I would start by thinking of your assistant not as “staff” but as a teammate–it isn’t so much about letting him/her “do their job” as it is working together in such a way that you are both using your strengths to advance the client matter.

Once you adopt that teamwork mindset, good and frequent communication will be your best tool for using each other’s skills appropriately and making sure expectations, deliverables, and timelines are clear (both yours and theirs–teamwork is a two-way street). To that end, I would spend some time with your new assistant explaining your productivity methods & philosophies to them and asking for their help in holding you accountable to your deliverables. At the same time, be sure to ask about their productivity systems and learn how they most like to work and how you can synch up with those methods.

Then I would set up a daily standup meeting (no more than 5 min) to go over your Most Important Tasks for advancing client matters. That way you will make sure you are on the same page as much as possible (using that .1 on a daily basis will pay huge dividends in overall productivity). You’ll probably want to expand that meeting to 10 minutes on Mondays so that you can go over your client delivery goals for the week first, then for the day.

Also make sure to check in at least monthly on how you are working together. This isn’t about actual tasks but about the process and communication between the two of you. I like to use three simple questions: what is going well that we should keep doing? What isn’t going well that we should stop doing? And What should we try that is different/new? Here too it is a two way street–be open to feedback and criticism and be prepared to act on it. You’ll be amazed at how much more productive you will become if you do.

The biggest mistake I see is lawyers who think of their “staff” as people to “help me get my work done” or who “take care of the easy stuff.” That attitude creates a sense of hierarchy and other-ness that will inevitably lead to suboptimal results. Instead, think of you and your assistant as having the same goal: delivering outstanding legal outcomes to your clients. You both will be more engaged in your work and will help hold each other accountable to meeting that goal. Sure your task sets will be different, but both sets are necessary to deliver good value to the client. This will help build a solid relationship and loyalty (both ways) that will be an invaluable asset as your practice matures.

Good luck with the new job!

 

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