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Find Good Legal Assistants and Keep 'Em
by Karen Bries
What they are thinking when they leave you
We hope that none of you have had this experience, shared by a member: "Many years ago we had a temporary secretary come in to help. Although she worked diligently, nothing ever seemed to get done. After a frustrating week she was replaced. A couple of days later, a mass of bundled papers suddenly dropped into the second temp’s lap. They were the work product of the first temp—full of spelling and grammatical errors—that had been Scotch taped to the underside of the secretarial desk."
If you, too, are having a hard time keeping support staff, listen to Mev Parsons and Barb Allen of the Denver Bar Placement Service, who have worked there for 15 years.
Here are some answers to your questions about hiring and retaining legal assistants, secretaries, paralegals, receptionists and office services clerks.
- Why do they always leave? The answer may be as close as looking in the mirror. The top reason why legal assistants leave is because they have personality conflicts with their bosses or co-workers.
To avoid this, make sure the person you interview can work with difficult people, both clients and attorneys.
- What do I need to look for in an assistant?
Your assistant should have formal training through a legal secretarial or paralegal program or the equivalent in legal experience. It’s also important to know that a degree in criminal justice might not be good enough, unless you happen to work for a criminal defense firm.
Try looking for an assistant who specializes in your area of law. Legal assistants have become more and more specialized over the years.
Overall, your assistant should be dependable and willing to do what it takes to get the job done. If they lack the above requirements, but have a great attitude and love to work, hire them. Also, take the time to train them.
‘I had a temporary assistant who was transcribing dictation to several Denver law firms. I received back a half dozen neatly typed letters addressed to Holland Ampersand Hart, Sherman Ampersand Howard.’
-A DBA member
- How can I help my legal assistant understand the importance of professionalism in the law firm?
"Because attorneys must attract, maintain and please clients, it is important that the attorney and their staff portray a professional image, "Allen said. "Everything has to be its best. It’s not like a corporation, where you get your salary and go home."
When you interview, make sure to look at how the person presents him or herself, and evaluate attitudes. Let them know what your firm’s expectations are.
- Why can’t my assistant get anything done? Make sure you hire someone who shows initiative. It’s not only about finding work to do, but knowing where to go to find the answers. Can’t find it in the firm’s law library? Then they should know other places to go to find the answers.
Another answer to this problem is finding someone who knows how to prioritize. Often assistants find themselves working for more than one attorney.
"If both are yelling that they need something now, that assistant has to know what to do first," Parsons said.
- My paralegal quit because I wanted her to file. I thought everyone did that. Take time and carefully craft a job description from A to Z. Be honest with the applicant. Many quit within the first month, stating the job was misrepresented to them.
Parsons remembers an extreme case of this from about 10 years ago: "Once we had a young woman come in sobbing, saying that every day at noon her boss would lay on his desk shirtless and demand a backrub. When she refused, he told her she had to because it was in her job description."
- My assistant seems to always have to leave for family emergencies. In this day and age, you just have to be flexible. If you want to find a quality assistant, but it means letting him come in at 9 a.m. after dropping his toddler at pre-school, just do it.
Talking about this issue at the beginning and making set schedules will reduce the times when assistants run late or don’t show up for work unexpectedly. On the other hand, an employee needs to be flexible and willing to work some extra hours.
- My assistant can’t even open an e-mail message, let alone e-file!
Top-notch technology and keyboarding skills are essentials. "Most firms are changing to MS Word to accommodate clients, but legal specific software is still a must," Parsons said.
Try having a trainer come to your firm to teach a class or send your assistant to a class (the bar association offers several, see page 13).
Have you tried all of these things without any luck? If so, call Mev and Barb at (303) 894-0014. They’ve been doing this for 15 years and probably know your firm better than you know it yourself. They can help you find an assistant who’s right for you.