May 19, 2008
5 stages of working with support staff
From “Good News!” to Good-bye!” in five easy steps
The secretaries, paralegals, librarians, administrators and clerks who populate the offices you are about to enter are just as important to you as the clients you will serve. If you are lucky, you will work with a talented staff that has worked together for a long time or, at the very least, that has some institutional memory both for clients and for the firm or agency itself. Your relationships with these people can make or break your career.
Stage One: Your first day On your first day (and this includes your first interview), people are prepared to like you, to help you, and to invest in your success. They don't know you yet.
Stage Two: You act like a jerk – just once. Whether you are rude or abusive to a secretary or a lawyer, or blame someone for your error, you can almost always repair the damage if your apologies are sincere and you never, ever repeat the behavior. Flowers, candy and lunch are helpful. Three exceptions: (1) Rudeness to support staff during the interview process is nearly always fatal: few employers are willing to risk anything on someone who doesn't have the sense to behave before being hired. (2) Rudeness or abusive behavior to strangers (or to Wine Stewards during a callback dinner) in public places will cost you an offer and mark you professionally for life. (3) Rudeness to clients is nearly always fatal, because the person who is making a judgement about you -- the billing partner -- can fire you on the spot.
Stage Three: You really are a jerk. Whether you are rude, abusive, incompetent, lazy or make mistakes and blame others, you are in big trouble. The support staffers who might have smoothed the wrinkles in your appearance, covered for your small mistakes, and chuckled at your eccentricities, will now happily watch you fall on your face. For example: After an Associate General Counsel at a bank had been working for more than six months, staff began to ask "How long should it take for him to learn that each foreclosure needs a $75 filing fee check, and that the lead time for a request is 24 hours?" and "When will he stop blaming us because he forgot to request the check?" Nearly half a dozen secretaries stopped covering for him.
Stage Four: Your staff complains to your boss. Singly and in groups they approach their bosses and your boss, saying "I can't believe that he/she did/didn't do (whatever)." This becomes a chorus, and everything that you've ever done that you weren't supposed to or anything that you were supposed to do but didn’t, becomes sheet music for this choral group. When dealing with complaints about you begins to take up measurable amounts of your boss’s time, you are in trouble.
Stage Five: The Piranha Stage – not a pretty sight. Singly and in groups, they tell their bosses and your boss and say "It's him/her or us." Pack up the contents of your desk and sneak away in the night. In American cities where employers are paying multi-thousand dollar bonuses to anyone who helps to recruit secretaries, lawyers who irritate staff are expendable. When weighing the worth of a brand new summa cum laude graduate of Any Law School against a cadre of legal secretaries and paralegals with years of experience, the new lawyer is a loser. Your reputation is in tatters, and the support staff and professional grapevine in your city has marked you for life. People still remember the young associate in Baltimore who threw staplers at his secretary in 1988.
REMEMBER: You can never, ever be too nice to support staff. Flower, candy and lunches are helpful, but they won’t repair a relationship damaged by your lack of respect for support staff’s professionalism.
University of Minnesota Law School
University of Minnesota Law School