Law firms are built on leverage.  The partners make oodles of money because they work on a bunch of matters.  And they can work on a bunch of matters because they have teams of associates churning away beneath them.  The more support they have, the more they can accomplish.  It’s the way their practice works. 

It’s also the way YOUR practice works.  The more support you have, the more YOU can accomplish.  Yet, ironically, it’s often those associate who take their work the most seriously that have the greatest difficulty leveraging their efforts by delegating tasks and staffing out work.  In the coming months, therefore, we’re going to publish a few posts on making effective use of firms’ support resources (e.g., the word-processing department, paralegals).  And we’re going to begin with the one resource that you should be using every day: your assistant.

This Applies to You

Before we begin discussing tips for instructing, and making effective use of, your assistant of general applicability, a quick word for a subset of the associate population.  As hard as it is to believe (for those of who relied heavily on the support of our assistants), a meaningful percentage of associates don’t make use of their assistants at all.  They don’t ask them to turn changes.  They don’t ask them to enter time.  They don’t ask them to book travel.

I understand that if your assistant seems unresponsive or unhelpful the first few times you ask for his or her help, you might be tempted to just do things yourself.  Or that if you arrive at that the law firm as a 25-year-old (with limited work experience) and are assigned an assistant who is twice your age and has been at the firm since you were born, it can feel uncomfortable to begin telling that person what to do.  But that’s their job.  And without them doing their job, you can’t properly (and efficiently) do yours.  It’s important that you make use of the support resources available and ensure that you and your assistant are a well-functioning team.  So how do you make that happen?

Develop a Personal Rapport

The first thing you should do—and this applies to every associate, but particularly to those who are not inclined to use their assistants—is to develop a personal rapport with your assistant.  Interact with him or her outside of (preferably before) asking them to do things for you.  Ideally, as early as possible on your first day, introduce yourself (warmly) to both your assistant and all the members of the coverage team that will be providing you with support when your assistant isn’t available.  Learn about who they are, and let them learn a little bit about you.  Assistants aren’t robots, servants, or accessories.  They’re people.  Get to know them.  The foundation of a personal relationship will improve your working relationship immeasurably. (Not to mention the fact that, in a firm full of nerdy type-A lawyers, the assistants are often the fun ones to know, those with the juicy gossip, etc.)

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(Pro tip:  Personally, I’ve always found that the stronger the personal connection I had with my assistants, the better the professional results.  But I’m also not someone who has difficulty switching from “friend mode” into “boss mode” when work needs to get done.  I have seen others, however, who are not as proficient at flipping that switch get themselves into difficulty—when paired with an assistant of a particular disposition—by establishing an overly-chummy rapport that prevented them from asserting themselves when the need arose.  Again, assistants are people, and people can take advantage of the leeway personal rapport provides to cut corners on work tasks (particularly with more passive task-givers).  If you’re someone who might have difficulty asserting yourself with a friend or modulating between “work” and “friend” modes, be mindful of maintaining whatever boundaries you need to be able to task your assistant effectively.)

Be Clear

When it comes to delegation, nine out of ten work-product miscues can be traced back to poor or ambiguous direction.  Before hurriedly asking your assistant to do something, take a second and ask yourself what he or she—as someone not similarly immersed in task’s context—needs to know to get the job done right.  Make a concerted effort to consider, and deliver, all of the information the assistant needs to complete the task correctly.  That means considering the ways instructions could be misinterpreted or taken in a different way.  (Below, we offer a few specific tricks of the trade that will help facilitate the right result.)  When you’re busy, it may be frustrating and seem unnecessary to spend an extra minute or two on assistant instruction to spell out, in excruciating detail, what (in your mind) should be an intuitive task.  But take it from me—in the long run—investing that extra minute or two on the front end will be well worth the return of avoiding unpleasant surprises and disappointing results on the back end.

Take Responsibility (and Then Be Firm)

Speaking of disappointing results, if you ask your assistant to complete a task and the result is not what you’d expect, do not (immediately) get frustrated with your assistant.  Take a hard look at your own instructions and try to understand how the miscommunication arose.  If the disconnect isn’t readily apparently, ask your assistant why they did x (what you got back) instead of y (what you expected to get back). 

If you ask your assistant to complete a task and the result is not what you’d expect, do not (immediately) get frustrated with your assistant.  Take a hard look at your own instructions and try to understand how the miscommunication arose.

And don’t ask in a passive-aggressive way that will make him or her defensive and prevent you from getting the information you need.  Rather, ask in generous, non-accusatory way that communicates that you’re genuinely interested in their perspective/experience and looking for feedback on how to improve your own instructions.  And then act on that information.  Don’t do the same thing again and expect a different result, thinking that “now he or she must know I mean x after the last time”.  Take responsibility and change your OWN behavior—your instructions—to ensure the right result.

If, after you take responsibility and eliminate any possibility that the fault lies with your instructions, your assistant continues to deliver subpar work (and it’s work that you think they’re clearly capable of getting right), you need to be firm and communicate clearly that things need to change.  Don’t be a jerk about it.  To the extent possible, stay positive and try to give constructive criticism and action-oriented feedback; but assert yourself, establish unambiguous expectations, and hold your assistant to them.

Tricks of the Trade for Instructing Assistants

Here a few tried and tested ways to improve the results you get from tasking assistants.

Give More Context

No matter how discrete or compartmentalized a task may seem, it can be helpful to give a little context to it.  Human beings understand things better when those things are part of a narrative or a story.  When handing off an assignment, tell the assistant what the work product is, where it’s ultimately going, and how what they’re being asked to do fits in.  That contextualized understanding will generate better results and create more a sense of investment in a tangible outcome. 

(Pro tip:  Another reason to give more context is that your assistants may have done similar projects before and pick up on even more ways to contribute.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Don’t underestimate the value experienced assistants can bring to a variety of tasks.)

Write It Down

I’m a big fan of oral instructions.  They makes it easier to give more color and context, as recommended above.  But they’re also much easier to forget.  Whenever possible, boil a task down to a series of specific mandates and write them down.  In order.  (There’s usually a critical order-of-operations to sequencing multiple sets of edits, for example.)

When I was sending a task to one of my assistants, I would send the relevant documents and specific instructions by email (in numbered steps, if there was a series of tasks) and say that I would swing by to give them a bit more color.  And then—after giving them a minute to read the email—I would swing by with a voiceover.  That way, I could still give my assistant the long, contextualized version of the project, but they’d also have the clear, action-oriented list of tasks in writing for reference.  This approach has a couple of added benefits.  First, it can help surface ambiguities or errors in your written instructions or just give your assistant a frictionless opportunity to ask questions about anything they don’t understand.  Second, in a world where there’s often a lot going on and plenty of competition for an assistant’s time, it helps focus the assistant’s attention on whatever you sent across so that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle or bumped down the priority list.

Whenever possible, boil a task down to a series of specific mandates and write them down.  In order.

Eliminate Variables

Picking up on the point above about boiling a task down to specific mandates, it’s very helpful to eliminate as many variables as possible before handing off a task.  Some of them may not occur to you in advance, but—after a few years of practice—you’ll begin to see how certain tasks can go wrong.  Think about what could go wrong, and—if it’s easier to lock down moving pieces before setting your assistant loose in a document than it is to write out a complicated set of sequenced instructions—take a quick second and eliminate the variables.

For example, building on the point made above about the order-of-operations to multiple rounds of changes, if you have two mark-ups—one heavy to the last turn of a document and one light to an out-of-date prior version, it might be easier just to quickly add the incremental comments from the light, out-of-date mark-up to the heavy current one yourself (with the benefit of knowing which changes between versions should, and should not, moot certain comments) than it would be to explain to your assistant how to handle it.  Or, if a heavily revised mark-up comes across with a fully revised clean version and the master document on your system has been slightly revised in the meantime, instead of having your assistant put those large number of changes in the updated master document manually, it may be easier for you to save down the revised document as a new version, run a blackline against the prior version (the one reflecting those minor interim changes that need to be preserved), and then mark those few interim changes (now shown as deletions) for your assistant to “stet” in the master. 

Encourage Questions

Explicitly ask your assistant to come to you, in real time, with any questions or items that they don’t understand.  Although you might not expect it at first, many assistants will otherwise take the approach of just skipping over points or comments that they don’t understand.

Flag Open Points

Related to the above, ask your assistant to flag any changes in a mark-up or items in a task that they did not complete or are not 100% sure that they completed correctly.  (My personal technique for mark-ups, after a few years in practice, was to ask my assistant to circle such items with a highlighter.)  You should always, always, always proof your assistants work carefully, but you should absolutely make use of every shortcut to make that proofing exercise easier.  There’s absolutely no reason there should be a change that your assistant knows you should confirm, but that you end up just having to hunt for and hope you catch.  Not only does this sort of flagging exercise help prevent problems from being missed, it has the added benefit of causing most assistants to take a longer second look at something they don’t understand before moving on.  Naturally, everyone wants to avoid returning a document with too many conspicuous highlighter marks on the page.

Set a Deadline

Always specify a deadline.  Many associates fall into the trap of thinking that a particular task is too small or quick to warrant a deadline conversation.  And then they sit at their desks getting frustrated or anxious when an hour, or two, or three, goes by and they haven’t gotten their work back.  You never know what’s going on with your assistants, and THEY don’t know what’s going on with YOU…unless you tell them.  Setting a deadline will help set expectations and surface conflicts.  And if time is tight, or if your assistant gives you an indication that they have a conflict/constraint that might prevent them from meeting your timeline, explicitly ask them to make use of their coverage resources and hand the task off to a colleague, if necessary.  Unless your firm doesn’t operate this way, it’s not your job to navigate bottlenecks in your assistant’s work.  It’s going to happen from time to time, and law firms have overflow procedures to deal with it.  The right answer is (usually) not for you to just take the work back and do it yourself.  Be clear about the timeline and the priority (and don’t cry “wolf”—be straight with your assistants on both counts), and be firm, if needed.

Type Out Riders

When it comes to mark-up turns, one of the most fertile fields for mistakes are long, manually-typed insertions.  If you need to insert text that’s longer than a phrase, type (or copy) it out in rider form and send it to you assistant by email so they can simply paste it in.  It’ll avoid LOTS of typos.

Ask Them to Proof Their Own Changes

On the subject of avoiding typos, if you’re having a problem with your assistant, explicitly ask them to proof their own changes (which is something they should be doing anyway).  If that doesn’t resolve the issue, ask them to proof their own changes by printing out a blackline and reviewing it in hard copy (which is something that YOU should be doing anyway (recall step 3 of “The Mark-up Mindset”)).  This should nip the issue in the bud.

(Pro tip:  If, for a moderate mark-up, your assistant is averaging more than an error every couple of pages (and the good ones should be closer to just one or two errors per doc), they need to spend more time proofing their changes.)

Can you think of any other tricks of the trade for effectively using and instructing assistants?  Leave a comment.  Have any questions?  Ask away!

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