Many of us like to think that we are self-made. I am guilty of this. There weren’t lawyers in my family (other than a cousin just ahead of me in law school), so I made my own way in our profession and for a long time, I figured I was “self-made.”
But the reality is that I received support, guidance and training along the way from many people, and I would not have been able to have my career—even doing it “my way”—without them. Some of them were more senior lawyers and some were peers, but today I want to talk about legal assistants and law firm staff, people who play an important role in our training and work worlds, but who we may forget to thank in our theoretical Oscar for Best Lawyering.
I think I am qualified to write about the importance of support teams because I ran a small practice out of my home for about 10 years both with, and without, an assistant. My business model involved low overhead so I thought I could operate successfully without an assistant, but this meant that I spent a lot of time on non-lawyer (and non-billable) work. I had worked out how many hours I needed to bill each week and, since I valued my flexibility about when I worked those hours, I thought even having a part-time assistant would lock me into someone else’s timeframe.
This worked for me, after a fashion, until it stopped working and I hired my first part-time assistant. And then I kicked myself for those years of me trying to do it all myself. Perhaps there are lawyers out there who are successfully juggling all of the balls a law practice mandates us to juggle. While it is possible in the 21st century to create your own documents, for example, it is very difficult to be practicing law, doing client development, staying up to date on developments in your practice areas, issuing bills, chasing accounts receivable, paying invoices, and ensuring that your trust accounting is up to date.
So, while you can practice law without an assistant, you may find that you will be happier and more productive with an assistant. We all have activities that we enjoy doing and we are happiest when these activities make up the lion’s share of our workday. I hope that most lawyers (and articling students and law students) like the activities inherent in practicing law but here is the thing: we are not all the same and there are people who actually like some of the work that we hate.
Embedded in my short list of running your own law practice tasks was “chasing accounts receivable.” I really hated that one. Because of the way my practice was—largely corporations and not-for-profits organizations—I was comfortable billing after a file was complete and I had an exemption from operating a trust account. When I did small projects for individuals, I took payments by credit card to reduce the accounts receivable chase. But even still, I found the odd client whose credit card number changed (or who changed their credit card after providing it…)
I could sit in my office for hours doing anything but placing a phone call to the client whose payment had fallen through. I probably would have crawled across fields of lava if it had been an option in lieu of following up with clients who were slow to pay. Imagine my delight when my new assistant blithely started calling the problem payers and got their payments processed! As the person who did the work that underpinned the bills, I took payment failures personally, feeling that the client was effectively suggesting that my work wasn’t good enough etc. Quite often—I would venture to say the vast majority of times—the non-payment was an administrative oversight. But that isn’t how it felt to me. My assistant didn’t go down the rabbit hole that I went down when I started thinking about outstanding fees—she just picked up the phone and got payments done.
Trust me, it is very difficult to do all of the tasks related to practicing law well, as is having no backup.
Having an assistant meant that I had an accountability partner. If I said I was going to work on invoices on Tuesday afternoon, there was someone to remind me of my commitment when my self-discipline was eroding. It was also so good to be able to talk to someone about files, besides the client, and to brainstorm about how we could do things. It was so good to be part of a “we” instead of just an “I.”
Over my career, I learned that different people play important roles. I was interviewing legal assistants for my inhouse role and met with two equally-qualified candidates. They had each worked as legal assistants for twenty-plus years in law firms with good reputations. On paper they were similar. However, the Human Resources specialist equipped me with a question that differentiated them. It was “please describe a situation where the lawyer you supported was unavailable and a crisis arose.”
The first interview candidate said that she could not think of an example. She said that she did whatever her boss told her to do, i.e., she worked within the four corners of her job and that was it.
The other candidate thought for a moment and identified a situation. She explained that her lawyer had filed documents with securities commissions across the country and then boarded an airplane (this was in the pre-cellphone days). She then received a call from one of the securities commissions about a problem with the documents. Since she was unable to reach her lawyer, she gathered together the documents and information that she thought the securities commission in question needed and went to the office of another partner who practiced in that area. She laid out the inquiry and the documents she had assembled and asked the other partner for direction. He agreed that she had the correct documents and authorized her to fax (!) the documents to the securities commission.
There are practice areas and practices where lawyers want an assistant who stays in their own lane and does not act independently, and the first candidate would have been an excellent candidate for a lawyer with that type of practice. But my group was dynamic, and we had to work on the fly. We hired the second candidate because we wanted an assistant who would anticipate needs and solve problems (as long as she didn’t act without authorization.) However you run your practice, I hope that you have found an assistant, and other admin professionals, with the skill set and approach that works for you.
I am grateful to all of the assistants I’ve had before. To Betty, Elena, Barb, Anne, Ginny, Carol, Sylvia, Charlotte, Tara, Heather, Jan and everyone who helped me out on shorter term assignments—Thank you! And a big shout out to Bao-Hoa and Eileen who have my back at Assist. I really couldn’t do it without you—and I know, because I tried it.
We have the custom of thanking the people who provide admin support to us on Admin Professionals Day. It’s in April--so don’t panic and think you missed it. You still have time. I am writing about the importance of recognizing these key members of your team in February because Assist wants to help you celebrate the administrative professionals, while raising funds for our operations.
Last year, Assist partnered with BoxSMITH, an Alberta purveyor of fine gifts, to offer lawyers, firms and law departments one stop shopping for showing appreciation to the people who support us in practicing our profession. This was a successful fundraiser in which BoxSMITH donated a portion of proceeds from each gift ordered to Assist, and we exceeded our expectation in the initial campaign. The feedback we received was that the gift boxes and contents were beautiful. We received constructive suggestions which have helped us hone our offering for our second venture.
We are pleased to announce that we are partnering with BoxSMITH again this year. BoxSMITH will again donate $8 from each gift item to Assist. Please visit https://boxsmith.ca/pre-designed-gift-boxes/assist-2022/ to see this year’s curated collection. We have three price points, and each price point has colour and content alternatives.
In addition to the lovely content from BoxSMITH, each box will also contain an invitation to a special Psychological First Aid session in early May. This session will be for law firm staff as well as lawyers since we know that working with lawyers can be stressful. Assist’s programs do not cover law firm staff due to financial constraints, but we can all learn together about basic psychological first aid principles.
Why should you consider Assist’s Admin Professionals Day giftboxes for you organization?
First, it is easy and accessible. Just place your order by MARCH 18, 2022 and your beautifully packaged gift(s) will be delivered to your office by in time for Admin Professionals Day (April 27, 2022.) Why is the cut-off so early this year? Unfortunately, we are all still experiencing supply chain disruptions, so the ordering deadline has to be early enough to ensure that all box contents will arrive in time.
Secondly, your assistant will appreciate the items—they are lovely.
Thirdly, you can share the word with your colleagues (if your organization does not centralize gift-giving) to ensure that gifts are equivalent. No need to say more.
Fourthly, you are helping Assist continue to provide much needed professional counselling to Alberta lawyers, articling students, law students and dependent families. You may look like a hero in your workplace, and you will be hero to those in the legal community who encounter personal challenges.
And, finally, by thinking of your admin support team and recognizing them on Admin Professional’s Day, you will be expressing gratitude. Expressing gratitude is an important well-being strategy and helps build resilience, which we continue to need.
Be grateful, be generous, be well.
*** None of the products in Assist’s gift boxes contain alcohol. There are, however, items with alcohol flavours or scents. Any alcohol used to create the scent or flavour has been burned off during the production process.
***The Café gift is gluten-free and vegan-friendly. The other gift packages contain gluten and/or milk.