Attorney and Assistant: Harmony?

The relationship between an attorney and their assistant is one of the most important relationships in a law firm and must be fostered. It can add or detract from the quality of life in a law firm and the client's experience. The hours spent interacting with each other, relying on each other to meet the deadlines and expectations of the clients and the demands of the firm are sobering. Each has to understand the other's strengths, weaknesses and overall style. Beyond that understanding, each are in a constant state of prioritization and negotiation with all the competing interests for their time.

In addition to all this, the process of forming a pair bond is an art and not a science. Often times the pair is made but no bond is formed. I have spent several years, hands on, negotiating these "marriages". I would like to say that all pairs were made with an eye solely on the personalities and talents involved, but sadly that is just not reality. A fair number of times, there are very few options and it comes down to a choice of lesser evils. This means that when the playing field changes by growth, contraction or other factors, there are opportunities to make a change, which on its face is supportable by the "negative effects of a bad marriage".

For both attorneys and assistants alike, keep your eyes and ears open for any change. When it occurs, think of it as an opportunity which could help you achieve a better quality of life and client experience. The truth is, in these cases, the squeaky wheel will get the grease (within reason).

Make your case early and with sound business reason. It is okay to talk about personality, but relate it to the workflow. Anything that impedes your ability to meet expectations is something the firm's management should take every opportunity to correct. It really is just a matter of "timing" and "opportunity". If you don't let your needs known early, you will not be in the forefront of the decision maker’s mind. Express a willingness to be flexible and communicate your understanding that it is something that will take time but you want to make a change. It is even a good idea to express an interest, by name, in the assistant or attorney you wish to be paired with.

Then you have to put your faith in the hands of the firm's management and trust that the person making the pairing is in the best position to know the true nature and talents of the people involved (not what the rumor mill tells you about them). Often times, I have made pairings which on the face seemed odd but in practice greatly improved the situation all around. If you truly feel that the management making the pairings is too often missing the mark or in fact is not taking the process as serious as it must be taken, then do yourself and your organization a favor and step it up the ladder to the Managing Partner, or Executive Director. This is a pivotal skill that every firm must possess to create a healthy work environment.

There are behaviors you can try to mitigate "incompatibilities". You have to be honest and realize any "marriage" has an element of compromise. Most compromises can be reached with communication and positive reinforcement of positive behavior. Too often the road of least resistance rewards and reinforces negative behavior. I have counseled many attorneys and assistants on the pitfalls of accepting the "deficiency" and taking the brunt of work on themselves as a way to politely avoid actively managing the situation for a positive result.

The nature of the relationship is also deeply affected by personal events. Divorce, substance abuse, finance, bereavements, child birth, winning the lottery, etc. will all affect the ability of a person to focus on work. When this interference occurs, you have to make a choice as to what extent you are willing to "adjust to the event" and for how long. There is no one size fits all answer, but I have seen firms go to heroic lengths to support its members in distress. A temporary change of assignment can be a good way to mitigate the fallout at work, from personal events. It is very important to engage the management in a conversation as soon as possible. If you hold it in and the inevitable "deficiencies" begin to show in your work product, it may be too late for the management to insolate you from the fallout.

At the end of the day you need to actively participate in the decisions that most affect your quality of life. Both attorneys and assistants have to be happy and work together effectively if the client is to receive the attention they deserve.