What if I told you that, if everything’s urgent, nothing is urgent?
Ask any group of legal admin support staff, paralegals or clerks, and at least one of them will have a story like this:
- Solicitor sends a dictation with ‘urgent, must go today!’ stamped all over it.
- Support staff drops everything and begins feverishly working on it.
- Solicitor leaves at 4pm to go to the gym/play golf/pick up the kids,
- Support staff make voodoo doll of solicitor out of office supplies and repeatedly stab the doll with a lawyer’s bodkin.
The other thing that will happen is that none of the support staff will ever again believe that solicitor’s claim that work is urgent.
Anyone who has been in the law for more than five minutes will have realised that all successful firms need a superb support staff. In the days of articled clerks, secretaries (as we then called them) had the status of minor deities, since it was nobody’s job to do typing for an articled clerk, and in terms of priorities the articled clerk’s work sat below re-filling the photocopier and taking calls from telemarketers.
Indeed, most articled clerks learned their best advocacy tricks via pleading with secretaires to get typing done. The smart ones found out how to fill the photocopier themselves to free up secretarial time, and curry favour with them.
While times have changed, the importance of great support staff has not, and it is important for young lawyers to learn to work well with them. That means ensuring that hyperbole when it comes to timeframes is avoided, and the workload of the support staff respected.
It is inevitable that, from time to time, work will become so urgent that other work has to be dropped – but that has to be a rarity and the willingness of support staff to respect the solicitor’s claims of urgency must not be abused.
Time management and accurate prioritisation are skills every bit as important as legal knowledge, and time and effort must be put in to both of them. A solicitor who cannot manage their time will soon have much more of it on their hands, if you get my drift.
Each office will likely have its own system for handling these issues, but the following common sense approach may assist:
- Use terms like ‘urgent’ and ‘must be finished today’ sparingly, and only when genuinely necessary. If support staff have to work back, they may have to pay for extra childcare or postpone appointments; nothing will sour your relationship with support staff like them missing a child’s swimming carnival for a task that could have been completed next week.
- If the urgency is your fault, acknowledge, apologise and work out a way to try to make sure it never happens again.
- If the urgency is the other side’s fault, acknowledge, apologise and make a note of what the other side are like to try and, once again, try to make sure it never happens again.
- If you have said something ‘must go out today’ stick around until it has gone out – if it is important enough that support have to work late, it is important enough for you to do so as well.
- Be thankful and appreciative of their effort – a small, discreet gift never hurts either.
Law firms can be hectic, tension-filled places at times, and the teams that survive those times well are the teams that have a resilient, positive culture. That isn’t developed by keeping support in a never-ending cycle of urgency.