On one level, there are as many answers to this question as there are legal secretaries and lawyers. Every working relationship is different, and most of us will have found out that what perfectly suits one relationship doesn’t work at all in another.
However, as someone who has worked both as a Legal Secretary and as a lawyer, I think that there is one quality that most lawyers would agree is essential to the makeup of a really good Legal Secretary or PA. This is a quality that transcends personality types and practice specialisms, and you need it whether you are working for a family lawyer or a commercial lawyer, and whether your boss is permanently frantic or completely chilled. Looked at from the other side of the desk, your fundamental skill is to make your boss’s job easier, however you achieve it.
Easy, eh? It’s a lot less simple than it sounds. The big difference between you and your boss is that he or she has a billable hours target (and usually also an income target), and you don’t – but make no mistake: that billable hours target has an impact on you and your work. No lawyer wants to see more hours devoted to ‘admin’ on the timesheet than are absolutely necessary. The more you can free up your boss’s time for chargeable work, the better you are doing your job.
It goes without saying that this means you perform the core skills in your job description efficiently, be they typing, filing or supervision of the recycling, but most lawyers would say that making their lives easier goes much further than that. It’s a matter of attitude as much as of a skill set. If you are the source of problems that your boss has to take time out to deal with, you will find that she or he will start looking at your overall performance more critically, no matter how excellent your core skills are.
Things go wrong in an office environment every day, all the time. These days, technology is the most frequent cause: the printer has broken down again, or the broadband service has disappeared. Miffed clients spend ages on the phone to you complaining about your boss’s failure to ring them yesterday afternoon. Something is setting the fire alarms off every 40 minutes. You or your boss has got stuck in traffic during the school run. Any of this sounding familiar?
Again, it’s a generalisation, but most lawyers would prefer in these situations either to be totally unaware that there was a problem (you can always tell them afterwards how you rode to the rescue!) or to be told about the problem but also told that you have found a solution or at least a way around it. Some lawyers – a very few – are micro-managers and want to know every last detail about the broken printer or the fire-alarm issue, but most just need to get on with building up their chargeable hours. As a general rule, the less time you spend reporting problems to your boss and leaving it up to him or her to solve them, the higher you will be esteemed by that boss. It is also worth keeping in mind that your ability to solve problems is likely to impact your salary significantly.
How far you can go in solving each problem depends on two things: the relationship you have with your boss and the office’s organisation. If you don’t have the authority to get on the phone to the broadband provider and order it to reconnect the office PDQ, then don’t overstep the mark. But if a problem is affecting your ability to do your job and therefore affecting deadlines that your boss has to meet, then at the very least you need to get informed. Find out who is dealing with the problem and what the timescales are. Identify any issues that need to be addressed immediately – missing a deadline is an obvious example – and spare your boss the effort and time of doing that her- or himself. Think laterally: If the broadband is down, is the fax machine still working, and could the document be delivered that way? Should your boss think about getting a motorbike messenger? Don’t leave it all for him or her to sort out. If you come up with some sensible alternatives, you are likely to be remembered as resourceful and dependable in a crisis. There are hardly two better skills to have recognised.
The better you know your boss, the more skilled you will be at doing this. Some lawyers are not particularly comfortable with secretaries managing office problems – though fortunately these individuals are now rather old-school and gradually fading from the legal profession – and as I have said, some lawyers are micro-managers and will feel that you are trying to take control away from them. Also, there may be a support staff line manager who has his or her own responsibilities. You have to be careful not to tread on someone’s corns. Only you can judge how far you can go in offering your help.
As always in interpersonal relationships, the way you present yourself and the attitude you have towards the problem and towards your boss can make a world of difference. My experience as a lawyer and a secretary has proved to me that if you discuss problems in a cheerful and positive way rather than on a ‘we’re all doomed’ basis, that alone will improve your boss’s working life immeasurably. Don’t go over the top: ‘cheerful’ does not mean ‘hilarious’. Try to be consistently fresh, positive and reliable. It will change your own working life and probably your boss’s too.