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Why Legal Assistants Are Beneficial To Attorneys

Posted By Teresa M. Garber, PP, PLS, Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2018

"A Well-Trained Certified Legal Assistant Is Very Beneficial to Your Career"

If you are a lawyer just starting out in the legal field and dealing with working with support staff for the first time, this article is for you.  If you are a seasoned legal assistant (lawyers: the term used to be "legal secretary") or paralegal who is trying to figure out how young lawyers work, this article is for you.  I am here to send a message: do not underestimate the benefits of a well-trained certified legal assistant to your career as a lawyer.  

There is a lot of talk about the issue of younger lawyers fresh from law school having to work with legal assistants for the first time and experienced legal assistants having to work around younger lawyers "independence."  Thanks to technology, more and more younger lawyers are doing a lot of work themselves that traditionally was given to paralegals or legal assistants. Also, most lawyers coming out of law school are in their mid- to late-twenties. Many legal assistants are over 40.  The two sides seem to be afraid of the other: one side is viewed as dead set in its ways and unwilling to change; the other side is considered to be disrespectful and not able to appreciate the skills of the other.  Often, communication becomes non-existent between the two.

I am a certified legal assistant, I am now 45 years old, and I have been a legal assistant for over 20 years.  I have worked for several younger lawyers in my time, some of who started their careers with me as their assistant and are now high-ranking partners in their law firms.  I am going to share with you what I told my young associates when we started working together.

First, I have experience in procedures in the area of law we practice in (for me, it is litigation).  Yes, you may know how to state your case in a complaint, but do you know the filing fee in Michigan circuit courts? Michigan district courts? with a motion?  Do you know how many copies to file with the court?  Do you know which courts are more particular than others?  Did you know that the rules in Michigan state courts for citations in court filings are different than what you may have learned from studying the Bluebook?  Do you know that not all courts are open until 5 p.m.?  Do you know which court reporters your firm recommends we use? Which are more expensive?  I know the answers to these questions thanks to the years of experience I have gained.  These are all questions that you will need to have an answer to.

Second, the impression you make on the partners of your firm is critical.  The partners want you to bill as many hours as possible.  However, if a partner sees you at the copy machine making seven copies of a claim of appeal to be filed with the Michigan Supreme Court (which, by the way, you can submit electronically), you are in for a talking-to.  Partners question lawyers who do not dictate large documents for support staff to transcribe (learn to dictate; it helps with thinking on your feet and speaking your thoughts clearly).  Moreover, if your office is a mess with files and paper everywhere, it does not make you look busy to a partner.  It makes the partner think you better get that stuff out of your office and get it to your assistant to organize before you lose something important.  These are all things that legal support can assist you with.  We are here to make you look good.

Also, let's not forget about the clients.  Many in the workforce state that they are being forced to do more with less.  That is what clients expect.  Thanks to technology, clients expect legal professionals to get the job done faster, in a professional manner, and at a good monetary value.  In other words, clients want more at lower prices.  If a client sees a lawyer billing over $250/hour to burn CDs for document production, the client is going to become upset.  However, a client would be amenable to seeing, say, $120/hour for an assistant or paralegal to do the same project.  Clients have no problem taking their business where they can get more bang for their buck.

Last, I am a member of NALS, an association of legal support professionals that is dedicated to providing legal education, certification, and professional development to its members.  I have two ABA-recognized certifications that focus on written communications, ethics, substantive law, legal knowledge and skills, and office technology and procedures.  As an active member, I have contacts across the country if I need assistance with just about anything.  Because of my membership in and certifications from NALS, I can assist you by proofreading documents you send to partners and/or clients for grammatical issues.  If a partner has you working on a case for him in another state, I can find another NALS member who can point me in the right direction if we need to find a court reporter or process server, etc., in that state.  The CLE sessions I attend put me in touch with court clerks, train me in notary rules, expose me to different areas of the law that you may run into in your new practice (and you will encounter an area of law you are not familiar with in these first few years), and so much more.  My membership and active participation should demonstrate that I take my job seriously and am dedicated to excellence.

Legal assistants and paralegals: I am here to tell you that most new lawyers are great to work with.  The young lawyers I have worked for have been some of the nicest people I have met, and they are good lawyers—smart, hard-working, honest, and ethical advocates.  Regarding one of the young lawyers I worked with, I sat down with him in his office just after he started and told him all of the information I stated above.  My lawyer was not aware of what I was able to do to help his career and, despite the assurance of my benefits to him, was still a little uneasy about using my services.  He changed his mind quickly when he had to draft his first summary disposition brief a couple of weeks later.  On my annual evaluation (which took place four months after he started), my lawyer wrote that my citation skills were top notch, that I was always willing to take on extra work, and I never made him feel as if his work was less important than the work of the two partners I also worked for at that time.  That associate and I had a good working relationship, and it is all because I demonstrated to him what I could do to help.

Legal assistants and paralegals here are some food for thought; millennials do not want to be bosses; they prefer to work as a team.  Sometimes newer lawyers find it difficult to give assistants work because they feel it is not their place to do so, that it makes them look bossy.  I am all for being a member of a team.  As with any team, each member of the team brings unique skills to the task at hand.  For a lawyer-assistant team, the lawyer's skills may be the knowledge of the law and negotiation skills.  The assistant's skills may be organization, grammar, etc.  When all members use their skills together, great things can happen with the project.

Also, there may be an excellent reason why newer lawyers do not give work to legal assistants or paralegals.  Many more modern lawyers are not working generally with their support staff just because the lawyers either (a) feel the support staff have too much to do for more senior lawyers; (b) feel it would be quicker to do the project themselves; or (c) just simply do not know what work to delegate to support staff.  This is where a lawyer-staff heart-to-heart is going to help.  I assured my young lawyers that I prioritized based on real urgency.  If my associate hands me a brief that needs to be filed today, the partner's memo to the management committee is put on the back burner.  If you think it will just be quicker to do something yourself, think again.  You can be working on other (billable) matters while I am copying documents or scheduling hearings.  If you do not know what kind of work to give to support staff, ask.  We will let you know what we can and cannot do.

Lawyers, you may work with an assistant who knows the rules and sticks to them.  Many legal assistants love regulations and work with them consistently in the form of court rules, etc.  Many assistants are used to a much more formal atmosphere in the law office, and where lawyers may not have formal training on how to type or run a copy machine, everyone worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a lunch break Monday through Friday, and everyone's role was evident.  With a loosened structure and lawyers taking on tasks they would not have done in the past, it leaves the legal assistant feeling unsure about their place in your practice and the firm as a whole.

Now, if you are a newer lawyer and are paired with an inexperienced assistant (even an experienced assistant), I cannot begin to stress the importance of encouraging your assistant to join NALS.  I was in the same boat 21 years ago, and NALS made a tremendous difference in my career.  Having your assistant study and sit for a certification exam helps them learn to operate in the daily life of a law office and provides a solid foundation on ethics, legal technology, judgment, and many other areas.  Encouraging your assistant to attend CLE puts them in contact with people who can help your assistant and your practice.  Also, what a thing to brag about: having a professional legal assistant or paralegal working with you, someone who takes your career, and their own, seriously.

Lawyers: legal assistants and paralegals are your friends.  Legal assistants can provide so many helpful skills to aid in your practice.  Do not let our tough exterior fool you.  We want to help your practice grow and cement your status with the firm.  Get to know us, get to know our abilities, and encourage our professional development in NALS.  You will not regret it!


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