“Must be a good team player”. How often have you seen that in job descriptions and advertisements? And how often have you wondered what, exactly, the writer means?
After all, there are all sorts of players in every team. Among others, there are the star strikers, and the motivators, and the organisers; there are the backroom boys and girls who make sure that the team’s task gets delivered. Which of these is the writer looking for – or is s/he looking for something else entirely?
It can help to flip the phrase over: when someone is described as “not a team player”, it tends to mean that s/he puts personal considerations before the objectives of the team, or that s/he creates a certain amount of strife within the team one way or another: basically, that person creates obstacles in the team’s path. So, to flip the phrase back over the other way again, a good team player will put the team’s objectives before his/her personal goals of, for example, showing everyone how clever s/he is, or refusing to do work which doesn’t advance their own personal agenda, and will also work well with other people.
So, if a good team player puts the team’s objectives before their own and can work well with others, how do Legal Secretaries and PAs demonstrate their team credentials?
Whether the team is a long-established practice group or has been set up for a fixed period of time to carry out a large piece of work, the secretarial and PA work will literally be that team’s support. If you think of the team’s task as building a house, the secretarial/PA work constitutes the house’s foundations.
Like those foundations, the work isn’t seen; but if it isn’t there, the house would not stand. In other words, your role in the team is vital. Diaries have to be synced, meetings have to be arranged, clients have to be kept informed, documents have to be checked in and out and be easy to find, and the team’s own documents have to be prepared, vetted and kept in order, so that the team’s main objective can be met on time. All of these tasks, when well and efficiently done, speed up the team’s work rate and contribute greatly to the fee-earners’ efficiency.
Putting the team’s objectives first should mean that you contribute your specialist knowledge as part of the overall effort. Lawyers (and other team leaders) may well have ambitious plans for virtual meetings, intermediate deadlines or the production of documents that you believe are either (a) impossible or (b) can be more efficiently done some other way.
There may also be office internal procedures that the team leader hasn’t taken into account and which might adversely affect the deadline: the time it takes to authorise expenditure, for example, or the availability of office resources like scanning machines or booking out meeting rooms. If there are problems like this that the team needs to get around, be sure wherever you can to offer a solution as well as bring their attention to the problem.
Reliability is another key attribute of a good team player, but this should not mean “available without question at very short notice 24:7” unless that was part of the deal when the team was formed. Reliability is much more about delivering what you agreed to deliver, finished and on time, and making sure that you communicate with the rest of the team if you encounter problems.
This brings us to the other key skill of a good team player, which is the ability to work well with other people. For this you need the ability to communicate clearly and appropriately with other team members.
This can be a particular problem when you have been drafted into a temporary team with a specific, short-term task like preparation of a very large commercial contract. You may not know the other people in the team very well, and there may be difficult characters among the fee earners.
Tact and discretion are the watchwords here. Try not to get too involved in the group’s negative thinking. In fact, a strongly positive attitude amongst the support staff can often lessen the effect of other disgruntled team members: as a secretary, you can have a major influence on how happily the team works together on a day-to-day basis, because you are one of their main points of contact and you and the other support staff often set the overall tone in the office. Lawyers in a very stressful and difficult team will be particularly grateful to support staff who can go about their work competently and without drama.
It’s strange but true that putting the team’s objectives before your own and working on those sometimes invisible tasks can be your best opportunities as a Secretary or PA to shine and really prove your worth, not just to your immediate boss, but to all of the other members of the team. Make sure you make the most of the chance if it comes along.