Working well with legal staff

  • October 26, 2018
  • Julie Sobowale

Nothing brings two people together more than email. When Jeremiah Kowalchuk started working as a lawyer, he and his seasoned paralegal, Lynette Senio, bonded over their hatred for printing emails. They decided to work in a paperless environment.

"Jeremiah and I have established a good way of communication, working together and exchanging work back and forth," says Senio, a legal assistant at Field Law. "For example, I will receive instructions from Jeremiah to draft a letter or document by email or dictation. I will then forward that drafted document to him by email. He will review and make any changes if needed and then forward the document back to me. When I get that forwarded document back, that means it’s good to go. We can essentially do this process without even exchanging a single word with each other.”

Senio and Kowalchuk are a team. Having a strong, collaborative relationship with support staff will not only benefit clients but make your practice more efficient and effective.

The foundation of a good relationship is communication. Kowalchuk and Senio check in with each other often and have an annual review of their workflow and practices. "Jeremiah and I even check in with each other to make sure everything is good and if any of our procedures need changing or if we can be more efficient in anything," says Senio. "This is also a great opportunity to stay on the same page with your assistant as time goes on.”

Staying connected with your assistant increases your communication skills, builds trust, and strengthens the relationship, says Senio.

One example of bad communication is the email sent to the whole firm when one person breaks the rules. Michelle Spencer, founder of the Legal Learning Development Network and a former paralegal, says this type of communication is a sign that leadership in uncomfortable dealing with conflict.

You should address that thing one-on-one with the individual. You want to tackle issues head on and treat people as adults. You can’t be afraid of conflict. People will disagree and you need to set the groundwork to respectfully disagree.”

To avoid this situation, Spencer recommends that you clearly state your expectations and then hold others and yourself accountable, says Spencer. "You need to communicate your mission to clients and you need to state it to your team, even displaying it in your office. Why are we here every day?”

In order for lawyers and support staff to work well, there must be mutual trust and respect. "I worked with an estate lawyer who wanted me to create copies of some documents and mail them,” says Spencer. “I had to present the copies to him before I mailed them. I mean, I knew how to mail documents. If people don’t trust you and act like you’re dumb, then you resent that person and don’t do your best work. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

If you work with staff as equal partners instead of micromanaging them, you will have a strong relationship.

"I think it is important for lawyers and legal assistants to share work, and that everyone be involved in the whole file instead of a lawyer giving their legal assistant specific tasks," says Kowalchuk, now a partner at Field Law. "Legal assistants are professionals that need autonomy. Lynette engages with clients and has a level of engagement with our files that goes beyond just specifically assigned tasks. Lynette has a practice to run and I don’t need to look over her shoulder."    

This mutual trust and communication has a price. Lawyers and support staff must be willing to be honest and vulnerable with one another. That means acknowledging that personal issues may affect work. "Law school beats being vulnerable out of you," says Spencer. "Being real with people will allow them to be real with you. I had a boss that was having marital issues and I was going through a divorce at the time. He said I may be distracted at times, I’ll be going to therapy and I need you to back me up. And I did. That helped build trust between us. You can say don’t bring personal issues into your work life but for something like that, we have to acknowledge that.”

When hiring or starting to work with a new paralegal or assistant, it's good to set the ground rules in the beginning. Senio usually goes through a list with each new lawyer that she works with. Here are some things you'll want to cover in an initial meeting:

  1. Talk about how you will exchange work. This includes how you'll delegate work (dictation, email, verbally, etc.).
  2. Talk about what work will be delegated. What's expected if you CC your assistant on emails? Whose responsibility will it be to save emails and attachments for files? Clearly defining these tasks will reduce any confusion in the future.
  3. Give clear instructions and timeframes for the work. Most legal assistants and paralegals work for multiple lawyers so timelines help them to prioritize work.
  4. Give an explanation about why you're assigning the work. "Tell us why you’re doing it this way and not the other way," says Senio. "This helps us understand what is going on in the file and makes us feel a part of the team. Also, having your assistant up-to-date and familiar with the file gives her the ability to answer questions if someone else is working on the file or if the client calls with questions."
  5. Talk about how you've going to handle mistakes. "Mistakes are always going to happen," says Senio. "There’s always lessons to be learned. You want to acknowledge them, learn how to correct them, and move on."

Julie Sobowale is a lawyer and a frequent contributor to PracticeLink