Seen it, done it, bought the t-shirt! If we’re talking about legal admin, you can bet I’ve been there.
I’ve seen lots of change in the world of legal support. I was there before we had internet and mobile telephones, when every partner had a dedicated PA and roles were very clearly defined. Later, technology massively changed the way that everyone worked and now things are different as many firms look to outsource services, offer more flexible ways of working and fee-earner/admin support ratios are often higher than ever. In this article, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned from working with lawyers.
My legal journey started many, many years ago in a small firm of solicitors in Manchester (in the UK). It was my first job in legal and it was like another world. A world where the partner piled up little tapes full of dictation on top of mountains of paper files, which the secretary would turn into file notes and conveyancing forms and bills. We had typewriters, later with memory, but this wasn’t good news for typing up wills – Tippex wasn’t allowed so one mistake and the whole thing had to be started again – you can imagine the tears and tantrums. The partners seemed ancient to my 20-something younger self and were rarely seen as they sat in their upstairs rooms, smoking to their hearts’ content and being very important people.
Then came Belfast, in the 90s, in a small, city-centre firm run by two partners. The secretaries ruled the roost and the partners flapped around, hanging over our shoulders and dictating endless letters, as Northern Ireland Housing Executive property was bought and sold, as vesting orders were issued and challenged, and compensation claims raised and fought.
Fast forward – through supporting in-house Counsel in Saudi Aramco, working exclusively with the managing partners and management board in mid-sized, international London firms, and years of tension and drama and change as the Twin Towers were hit and the global economic crisis took hold – to where I am today: a self-employed virtual assistant based in Leeds, in the north of England, and helping lawyers in the country get things done.
What I’ve Learned Along the Way
- From the tiniest firm to the largest multi-national, client service is everything. And the ‘client’ is not only the external customer seeking and paying for expert legal advice. My client was my managing partner and my management board and the partners and teams I supported. Law firms are not just made up of legal people, there’s a whole support network that keeps the engine running – HR, IT, Marketing, Admin support, Facilities – and everyone in each of those teams has a client or clients to look after, either internal or external.
- Appraisals are important. They’re a time to be open and honest, to set goals, highlight achievements, ask for help, and look at your career path. And they’re not just for employees. Owners/partners/managers also need to demonstrate that they are contributing to the business, adhering to core values, and checking if they’re on the right career path and have succession in place.
- Good communication makes everything work better. Poor communication causes suspicion, misunderstanding and low morale. Imagine finding out what your company is up to by reading about it in the press. It has to be better to work in an environment where people talk to each other and treat each other with respect.
- Standing still is not an option. Throughout my career, I’ve heard this over and over again, especially after the 2008 economic crisis when law firms were looking for ways to grow, and hushed-up merger conversations were happening everywhere. Now that I’m working for myself, I really do get it – investing, training, improving, networking, learning, listening – if you want to succeed and grow, you have to keep ‘doing’.
- Cut through the crap, be decisive, and speak up if you know there’s a better way. Lawyers seem to love meetings – I should know, I spent ten years minuting them. But sometimes you can talk a thing to death – just make a decision and get on with it.
- Being a brilliant lawyer doesn’t mean you’re brilliant at everything. It doesn’t mean you’re brilliant at managing people or finding work or getting things done. But there’s a whole pile of people who are brilliant at managing people or finding work or getting things done. You can outsource to these people while you get on with being a brilliant lawyer.
- I wouldn’t change my job for the world. Working with partners is challenging. They are business owners, they are demanding, they are a right mix of weird and wonderful personalities and getting them to do stuff is like herding cats. But, it’s never, ever boring, it is often immensely satisfying, and it’s given me some great experiences over the years. Now I’m older and it’s a very different world to when I was at that little firm in Manchester. It’s exciting to work in a different, more agile way, with a new generation of law firm partners. Here’s to the next twenty years!