We all know the challenges of being a lawyer—long hours, commuting, stress—the list could go on and on. It is easy to get wrapped up in everything you’re doing to make this career work, and that can mean overlooking those that surround and support you daily. Well, it is time to stop and take notice of the helpers—your support staff.
Support staff can be anyone from the mail clerk to the most senior paralegal, from the runner to the receptionist. A varying cast of characters who assist you and make sure that your job gets done. You are not alone, and it is time to start building up those relationships and showing your appreciation.
The first line of defense in an office setting is, of course, the receptionist. Make sure you are greeting them in the morning and getting to know them. Who better to tell you that the client you are about to meet with is unhappy? Knowing the meeting may have some issues is an invaluable head start on fixing the problem. They also can tip you off to conversations heard while people are waiting in the lobby. Is the conversation jovial, or does it seem tense? Even something as little as what kind of refreshment a client requests can give you a leg up. The next time you meet with them, you can have that refreshment ready. Small gestures you can glean with the help of your reception staff can add up to positive impressions.
PARALEGALS AND SECRETARIAL STAFF
It should be obvious that a good paralegal or secretary is worth their weight in gold, but in the grind, it can be easy to take advantage of their efforts, or for them to feel unnoticed. The importance of these roles cannot be praised enough. Not only do they keep your schedule in order and help with legal documents and review, but they also have a lot of soft skills you should get to know. Your paralegal and/or secretary (or another in the firm) likely has been with the firm a lot longer than you, working with generations of lawyers. They have seen summer clerks become associates, and associates become partners. They have been in the trenches, and have knowledge and observations that can be invaluable. Paralegals and secretaries know everyone. Knowledge is power, after all. A good secretary will know your client, and whether they want correspondence on every detail, or only a general update. Your paralegal will have a bank of legal resources like drafts and memos to draw from, so you are not reinventing the wheel on every project. A paralegal can guide you on whether an issue is one that needs to be brought to the attention to those above you, or if it is something you can manage on your own. At the end of the day, these people will save you more times than you can count. Remember that last minute filing you got an assist on last week? They do!
There is no such thing as a lawyer who doesn’t use technology. Even the eldest of partners have an email address (whether they actually know how to use it or not). With the rise of COVID and the remote work initiative, technology has become more important than ever. Whether you are remote, hybrid, or back to in-office working, you are using technology all day, every day. IT people can get a bad rap, being portrayed in the media and movies as impersonal or irritable, but look past the stereotype. While you may work with a limited amount of people in the firm, it is likely the IT staff work with everyone—from that elder partner who likes his emails printed and stacked neatly on his desk, to the new summer associate, to the accounting department. It takes a tremendous amount of work to keep the firms’ systems and programs running smoothly. If you take the time to get to know the people in IT, it will make your life easier when an issue arises. If you have particular trouble with one system or program, find out who the go-to person is for that issue. Be friendly with them. If you have a problem that seemed easily fixed by IT, ask them if the fix is something you can perform yourself in the future so you can take one task off their never-ending to-do list. It can save you time by not submitting a support ticket and waiting your turn for help.
MAIL ROOM, COPY ROOM, AND RUNNERS
Mail room, copy room, and runners are employees you may never personally interact with, but these people are an integral part of your job. You will absolutely at some point in your tenure need them, maybe even desperately. The value of getting to know these members of the team will pay off. Looking for those interrogatories opposing counsel swears she mailed out last week? Mail room. Need to file a brief that requires hard copies—lots of them—now? Copy room. Do not forget about runners, those daredevil angels, who navigate downtown streets for sport and zip paperwork to courts and opposing counsel. Make sure they know you appreciate them too.
The most unseen of the bunch are those who clean up after the office. Like the seasoned paralegal or secretary, a member of the janitorial staff also may have a certain longevity in the office. When you are burning the midnight oil to make your billable hours, they too are contributing to the effort. The crew is there night after night, making sure your office environment is clean and tidy, which is helpful for maintaining focus, drive, and productivity. No one wants to work in a messy place. Take a moment to say hello and make some small talk (you needed a break anyway). A friendly chat with someone while under pressure actually can help you go back to the task more focused.
SHOW THE LOVE
Now that you have looked up from your laptop long enough to see your support staff, how do you acknowledge them and show that appreciation? Gifts are an effortless way to express appreciation, and not just on birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. Show them some love with lunch from their favorite spot when you are crunching to meet a deadline and do not have the time to eat out. Grab an extra latte for the receptionist when you received valuable client information, or maybe just because you want to. Gifts are not the only way to make someone feel seen and appreciated. Give praise when someone did something that benefited your work. Tell the boss that the person really came through in a crisis by giving them the recognition that is due. Giving credit where credit is due goes a long way with people. They will see your integrity in the situation and remember it for a long time to come. Another overlooked way to show appreciation is simply getting to know the person, even if just a little bit. Knowing someone’s favorite sports team, or that they are expecting a new grandbaby, can make a person feel seen. It is about looking at the person outside the organization so they can be seen within the organization. Make asking someone “how are you?” meaningful, and not just a courtesy. Small conversations throughout your days (and nights) can be beneficial to both you and the other person. Create a connection that goes outside the fact that you both happen to work in the same space.
Working as an attorney comes with great stress. Making small (or big) gestures to see and acknowledge the people around you will go a long way in forming relationships that will assist you when times get tense. It also shows you have what it takes to lead. People around you, and above you, will take notice of how you treat your support staff. You do not have to wait to make partner to show your ability to lead. Great leaders who value all contributions, no matter how big or small, do not go unnoticed. Go ahead and take that first step on the road to appreciating your support staff. You will not regret it.
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