Someone expressed surprise in this thread at the fact that I have a secretary. Yes indeedy I do, and thank goodness for it. People often view having a secretary as a sort of luxury or status symbol. But in my job -- which is all about generating documents often to very particular specifications required by court rule -- a secretary is an absolute necessity. Just last week when I had my appellate brief due, my secretary put together the Table of Contents and Table of Authorities in a jiffy-- a project that used to involve blood, sweat, and tears of frustration when I wrote moot court briefs in law school sans secretary. Having a secretary is also necessary from an economic standpoint. The commodity I sell are the hours (billable hours) I spend on legal work for my clients. They pay me for my legal research, legal writing, legal analysis, and advocacy. But time spent organizing files, formatting documents, making appointments, and printing out envelopes is not billable. So if I do that stuff for myself when I could be doing something billable, my firm loses money.
The attorney-secretary relationship is, of course, a hierarchical one. The attorney decides what she wants the secretary to do for her. If I need something now, I can tell my secretary to drop whatever she is doing and take care of whatever I have determined to be the priority for the day. At the same time, however, the attorney is often very dependent on the secretary. This is especially true of older attorneys who do not themselves have word processing skills.
My mother was a professional secretary and my father had a secretary. I did secretarial work through college and beyond, and I now have a secretary of my own. She is my twelfth secretary in nine years -- not because I am driving them off (I hope) but because I’ve moved or they’ve moved or my employer has decided to shuffle people around.
I have determined that the key to a successful attorney-secretary relationship is empathy. That is, each participant in the relationship should be able to understand and respect the conditions under which the other person is operating. For example, the temptation may be to get frustrated with a secretary who is focusing on unimportant issues. But then I remember when I was a secretary and I didn’t necessarily know what was or was not important to my boss because I wasn’t in his position. It is up to me to convey to my secretary who is an important client, or what projects can be put on hold. On the secretary’s end, however, the ideal for me is a secretary who seems to care about getting things done right and who seems to want to help me. I want a secretary who tries to lighten my load, rather than adding to my load. I think the same principle applies in any hierarchical relationship. Thus, my job is to try to lighten the senior partner’s load while the associate below me or the secretary lightens my load.
Right now I have a secretary who actively tries to make my life easier and it is wonderful. Our relationship is all sweetness and light (unless she has complaints about me that I don’t know about). But gosh I have had a lot of secretaries who added to my stress:
Ms. I Got No Time For You It was really terrible when I had to share a secretary with a very senior partner. Not only that, but the secretary worked miles away on the floor above me. I had no physical proximity to my secretary. And she literally never did my work. She simply ignored my work and at the end of the day she would always say, “Sorry, I didn’t have time for that. I was busy all day for Senior Partner.” She wouldn’t even find another secretary to cover for her, thus forcing me to run all over the firm to beg other secretaries to do my work. But the worst were email exchanges like this:
Secretary: A fax came in for you.
Me: Great. Can you bring it down.
Secretary: No time.
Me: Then, please ask someone to bring it down.
Secretary: No can do.
Me: Can you at least tell me who it’s from?
Secretary: Don’t know.
This woman literally never did a lick of work for me. Finally (and this is the only time I’ve ever done this), I told a partner that my secretary didn’t seem to have time to do my work. To my firm’s credit, they immediately did another shuffle and I got a new secretary, and some poor sap right outta law school got stuck with Ms. I Got No Time For You.
Ms. Indiscreet Then there was the one at the D.A.’s office who just had no filter on what came out of her mouth. I would be on the phone with opposing counsel, and she would be in the background yelling, “I CAN’T FIND ANY #)!*#)!*)*!) WHITE OUT!” Or a member of the public would come in to report a crime and when I referred that person to Chief So-and-So, my secretary would say, “Yeah, lots of luck with that moron.” Or opposing counsel would call after the first day of trial and my secretary would tell her, “Wow, Happy seemed really frazzled after that first day of trial. What did you do to her?”
The Burden Shifter I told this one when she first started working for me that she should feel free to make any suggestions about how we could do things better. Boy, she took that to heart. But all of her suggestions were about how I could do more of her work for her. For example, I used to forward all of my email correspondence with clients and opposing counsel to her so that she could print it out and put it in the file. Her suggestion for improvement was, “It would be a lot easier if you could print out the emails at the end of the week, organize them alphabetically by case name, and then drop them into my filing bin.” All of her suggestions were like this.
The Meanie This one was just downright mean to me. She was a very good secretary and she would do my work but she always made it very clear that she didn’t WANT to do my work. The best was when she would yell at me for giving her typing back with corrections. “Why can’t you get it right the first time?” she would say, notwithstanding the fact that it was her typo and besides, I should have the opportunity to edit my work. The other fun time was when she flamed me. I used to give her drafts of electronic newsletters we used to send to our clients. Her job was to work with the IT department to get it formatted and have the hyperlinks inserted. Once I emailed her (politely as always) to ask if the newsletter was ready yet and I got a response back in all caps, “I’VE TOLD YOU BEFORE THAT JOE IN THE IT DEPT. DOES IT!!!!!!!!” Man, was I pissed. I don’t really care who does it, just freaking tell me whether it’s ready. Monitor this project for me so that I can get my trial memo done. And, if for some reason, there is a problem with you being able to do that, just tell me what the problem is in a civilized manner.
The Meanie also worked with a male colleague of mine and never gave him a bit of flak. Male Colleague was always convinced that the Meanie just didn’t like working for a woman. I don’t know if he was right or not, but I have to admit that it’s a possibility.
Ms. I Need You to Hold My Hand Oh, gosh. This one made me think twice about ever telling a secretary to feel free to ask me any questions. This one would bounce into my office constantly to ask questions. I once timed it and she literally came into my office with a question every ten minutes for an hour. Questions like, “Where are the yellow post-its kept?”
Male Colleague had a lot tougher time with her than with Meanie. He absolutely was ready to go off the deep end. But I decided to make her my special project, mainly because I was excited to have a secretary who wasn’t mean to me. So we would have little chats about how it’s more efficient to write down all your questions about a project and then ask them all at one time, how you might want to direct questions about the yellow post-its to the person most likely to know the answer (like another secretary as opposed to an attorney), and how you might want to think about how you could answer questions for yourself. (For example, you could figure out for yourself when the court clerk’s office closes by looking it up on line and you really don’t need me to figure out what size envelope to put the brief in.) She thought I was “the bomb” (her word) but she never really incorporated my suggestions fully and it always seemed like I had to walk her through every project step-by-step (left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot).
The No Show This is the one who lived a mile from the D.A.’s office but couldn’t make it in if there was even a minor snowfall, even though the rest of us would come in from an hour’s drive away. Once she wanted me to shut down the office because there was no running water for fifteen minutes. I was about to make the decision to do so, when the water came back on. She gave me the most evil look I have ever seen when I broke the news to her. It was really a scary look.
Ms. I Did It My Way Actually, I really liked this secretary. But she had this weird thing about Courier font. My department has a policy of using only Courier font for all our pleadings and briefs. I am not crazy about it but it is the preference of the guy who heads the department. Well, my secretary really hates Courier. So she just didn’t use it. So I had to send every single thing she typed for me back to have her change it to Courier. When you’re generating ten letters a day, this can get really annoying. Fortunately, she retired before I had a melt down on her.
A Mea Culpa and an Invitation Now I know I am probably a bad person for picking on the secretaries. I also know that it’s a two way street and that we attorneys drive them nuts as much as they drive us nuts. If you have any stories about particularly maddening secretaries or bosses, please feel free to share.