Before starting my 2L summer associate gig, my law school offered advice on working with a legal administrative assistant. “Be nice to your legal assistant this summer,” they said, “sometimes assistants have worked with partners forever and will have a say in hiring decisions.”
Telling law students to be nice solely to secure employment struck me as fairly lame. “What about being nice to people because otherwise you’re a jerk?” I remember ranting to my friends as they backed away slowly. Instead of offering us Machiavellian advice, my law school could have offered a wide range of practical advice detailing ways to work effectively with a legal assistant. It didn’t. As a result, my first few months of working with my exceedingly patient legal assistant resembled a game of Marco Polo. To help you skip this awkward step, this month’s column consults a top expert to explore the ways that a new attorney can flounder and flourish when working with a legal assistant. Allow me to introduce Caron Pjanic, my legal administrative assistant.
When I say Caron is a top expert, I’m not exaggerating: She has over 30 years of experience, knows Minnesota court rules inside and out, and is one of the few people to have mastered Hennepin County’s interesting new e-filing system. I sat down with her this month to get her take on working with new attorneys.
Dunlop: So let’s go back to the beginning. What drew you to your work as a legal administrative assistant?
Pjanic: I always wanted to work with the court system, and I’ve also always enjoyed helping people. I want to be the support person who is one step ahead, thinking of the next document you’ll want or the next phone number we’ll need.
Dunlop: As a fellow people pleaser, your words resonate. And there’s lots of room for helping new attorneys—are there any common mistakes that new attorneys make?
Pjanic: New attorneys don’t always know what our standard formatting looks like, where to find templates for documents, or where to look for sample filings. I can help with that, but sometimes people don’t ask.
Dunlop: What’s the best way for a new attorney to figure out that you’re a great resource?
Pjanic: Talk to me! When new attorneys first start, it’s helpful to sit down and talk about our roles. Once an attorney gets rolling with her caseload, it’s nice to receive an update on the cases. The more I understand about a case, the more helpful I can be in identifying potential pitfalls. For example, when an attorney forwards scheduling orders, I can track those deadlines. If I’m familiar with a file, I’ll know who to serve when the time comes. If a paralegal is involved or another attorney, I can act as liaison for the team and keep everyone updated. As long as I’m in the loop, I can serve as a hub.
Dunlop: We had a great moment early on where you noticed that the affidavit I wanted to file didn’t actually resemble an affidavit. I was so grateful that you called me on it so that I could fix it. It must be a lot of pressure to know that you need to save new attorneys from themselves.
Pjanic: It’s helpful when people view their assistant as someone who is on their team. I can help attorneys look good, but the attorney has to partner up with me so that I can help.
Dunlop: And not feel threatened when you raise potential issues.
Pjanic: No comment.
Dunlop: Before working with you, I’d never had the opportunity to ask for a co-worker’s support at work (unless you count summer interns). But certainly not someone with your depth of experience. I found it awkward to ask for help, and I still struggle with the most appropriate way to ask for help — I imagine that there are more annoying and more useful ways to ask for assistance?
Pjanic: It’s appreciated when someone uses the “can you help me?” approach. Sometimes I’m in the middle of a huge filing, and it might be in everyone’s interest to bring someone else on board to help with a new project. If an attorney takes the time to ask if I can help, we can work as a team to get everything done.
Dunlop: It’s probably also nice to have sufficient lead time for time-sensitive tasks?
Pjanic: Yes. Again, communication is key. Ask whether your assistant is available to stay late before six o’clock; just because an e-filing isn’t due until midnight doesn’t mean an assistant is available to stay until midnight. If you’re filing something under seal, documents need to be at the court by close of business, and I’ll need time to take care of formatting issues and service.
Dunlop: I know that I can sound apologetic or overly grateful when asking for help, and I worry this is a gender thing. Have you noticed a difference in the way women and men ask for help?
Pjanic: There are differences, but as long as people are clearly communicating what they need and when they need it, the differences don’t substantively matter.
Dunlop: I’ve also noticed that more senior partners tend to rely on you for different sorts of things than I do. For example, I keep track of my own time using timers. In a world where young attorneys are computer savvy, how do you see your role continuing to change?
Pjanic: Technology is key, and my job ensures that I’ll remain on the cutting edge of our profession’s technological advances. I need to stay abreast of new electronic court filing systems, document storage programs, electronic billing and e-discovery to mention a few. I’m excited about the future of the legal assistant’s role.
Dunlop: Any last random pieces of advice?
Pjanic: Don’t forget that your assistant can act as a second set of eyes. A few years ago, we almost entered a settlement agreement referencing “pubic” instead of “public” matters. Building time into the process for a proofread can prevent language malfunctions.
Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010 after clerking for the Honorable James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation.