By Margarett Wilson, PLS
The dictionary defines “judgment,” in part, as:
The ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action. Good sense. Discretion.
I have always heard it said that you either have good judgment or you do not—you cannot learn it. I agree with that—up to a point. You cannot LEARN judgment, but you CAN learn to use your judgment more wisely. All it takes is a little practice.
As legal support staff, we are constantly being called on to use our judgment—whether it involves what project to tackle first, what to tell clients when they call, or even what to discuss in the office.
Lawyers (and, therefore, their assistants) have certain rules they must follow in client representation—the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Assistants are particularly involved in the rules governing competence (Rule 1.1), conflicts of interest (Rules 1.7-1.10), and confidentiality of information (Rule 1.6).
In order to competently represent clients, an assistant should maintain and upgrade his or her skills often. That is one reason NALS puts such a high emphasis on continuing legal education and certifications.
Whether inside or outside the office, your conduct should be above reproach. Avoid any questionable conduct. Do not get involved in inner-office politics. It helps no one and can certainly hurt others—or even yourself. Use your best judgment about what to (and what not to) discuss in the office—and when in doubt, do not talk about it. Nothing hurts your reputation as a trusted legal assistant more than being seen as someone who talks behind others’ backs, cannot keep confidences, or seems unsatisfied with his or her work environment. Others may think, “If she talks like that here, what is she saying other places?” Show pride in your office and your profession.
Conflicts of interest can be avoided by maintaining an accurate and up-to-date list of current and former clients so a conflicts check can be made at the very outset of a case. If the lawyer’s assistant knows of any conflicts—such as a case regarding a former client, if she has worked for the opposing law firm (perhaps on the same case), or if she has personal knowledge about the case—she should let the lawyer know immediately. It is both the lawyer’s and the assistant’s responsibility to be sure that no conflicts exist.
Of all the duties and responsibilities borne by the legal staff, confidentiality is perhaps the most important. The client has to KNOW he or she may discuss all legal problems with the attorney and the attorney’s staff without fear of any information being made known to anyone outside the office. Never discuss case matters outside the office—or even inside the office in public areas—no matter how “juicy” the case may be. Remember, too, that the rules of confidentiality apply even after termination of the client/attorney relationship and even after your employment with that particular law firm ends; in other words—forever.
Regular communication with clients is also extremely important. Your responsibility as a lawyer’s assistant includes being a liaison between the lawyer and the client. Be sure to relay complete and accurate messages between the client and lawyer and be sure to find out what you may tell the client. Remember YOU cannot practice law—you can only relay messages.
Support staff judgment is probably most called upon when determining which project to tackle first. What is most important or has a deadline looming? What can wait until later in the day or even tomorrow? What can be done on an “as I have time” basis?
What should you do when you have three attorneys who have all assigned work to you that is priority? How do you decide which one to do first? You are usually somewhat familiar with all the cases and they all seem urgent to you. Do you just pick one and hope you picked the right one? Do you work on them in the order you received them? Do you flip a coin? Or do you just go to lunch and hope it will all go away while you are out?
I have found that the best way to handle that situation is to let the attorneys decide among themselves which is to be done first. They know their cases and the situations involved. They know which is most urgent. Ask them to let you know in what order the projects should be done. If they are indeed all priority, perhaps you need to ask someone to help you with them.
You have to remember—even if your bosses do not—that you are just one person. Do not try to do it all and risk doing something terribly wrong. Delegate. Do not let yourself get in a hurry. Maintain pride in your work and do not let shabby work leave your office. Never let yourself be so pressured that you do not take the time to proofread your work. Verify the spelling of proper names and check all dates and amounts. Do not send a letter to opposing counsel with their name (or worse, your client’s name) misspelled. Double-check calculations. Check to make sure word usage and punctuation are correct. When you send out mail, double-check to make sure you have the right letter in the right envelope.
Competence, conflicts of interest, and confidentiality—all are important aspects of a legal assistant’s day. You are a professional. Relax, take a deep breath, and trust your judgment!
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