Please help a disgruntled secretary before she goes postal.
June 23, 2010 6:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm a legal secretary at a Big Law Firm, and was previously assigned to two attorneys, Sam and Sarah. Because my workload was light, I accommodated each of Sarah's requests as best I could (Sam is every secretary's dream, and requests very little assistance). To my own fault, I spoiled Sarah, enabled her laziness, and now find myself stuck in a hole. I've been assigned a new attorney, Scott, who is both new to the firm and has a large docket. My workload has increased substantially - Sarah is used to getting her way, and Scott has deadlines coming out of his ears. I need advice on how to get a couple points across to Sarah and Scott.

Please help me say the following in both a firm and professional manner:
  • Due to my increased workload, I can no longer do this insanely easy task that you are just too lazy to do yourself. I may have done it in the past, but things are different now. Do it yourself. 99% of the other attorneys in this firm can handle this by themselves.
  • You are not the only attorney I'm assigned to. Your assignments get balanced with everyone else's. Deal with it.
  • Sending me multiple emails about the same thing does not magically make me work faster.
  • Basically, I need to better assert myself to both, remind Sarah that she is not a special snowflake, and prevent Scott from becoming like Sarah. Please feel free to email me at:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm. Do you have some kind of supervisor or HR person or someone that you can go to for advice? If you do, that person would then either have the authority to speak to Sarah for you, or to advise you on how to speak to Sarah. If you should then proceed to discuss matters with Sarah and she takes it badly and tries to complain about you, you're covered and she'll have to accept matters as they are.
posted by orange swan at 6:18 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you need to sit down with all 3 attourneys together and explain to them that you are going to be busier than before and clearly indicate what type of requests will be your priority (e.g. cases that are due sooner, more complicated issues) and what type of requests will fall by the wayside (e.g. smaller administrative matters).

I think it is important to focus on the tasks, rather than the person, because this will keep everyone feeling more objective about your workload. If you try and 'fix' one person's behaviour, you run the risk of creating a negative environment - and you may just begin enabling another person!
posted by cranberrymonger at 6:20 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and about Sarah's multiple e-mails thing... send a reply to the first one saying that you're working on ABC for Sam because his deadline is 2 days away, but you could do easy task XYZ at 4 pm today if she's willing to wait. Then ignore the rest. (Delayed gratification! If cats can do it, so can attourneys.)
posted by cranberrymonger at 6:24 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Send this to all three lawyers you are assigned to:
"Hello Sam, Sarah and Scott,

As you are aware, I am the support secretary assigned to each of you. I do my best to support each of you as well as I can, balancing the peaks and troughs of your workloads to the best of my ability. However, I need your support to ensure that I can offer each of you quality support without impacting the others I support.

So that I can do this, please bear in mind the following:

- I will no longer be taking on [INSANELY EASY TASK] - our systems make this trivial to manage yourself and time spent addressing these tasks has the potential to severely affect more complex support work. If you are not sure how to carry out [INSANELY EASY TASK] yourself, please give me a call and I will talk you through it.

- When you are requesting my assistance, please limit contact to a single email or call with the task required, a clear time/date it is required by and any further notes from yourself. Unless things change, please do not send follow-up emails before the due time/date - I receive many emails a day and additional follow-up emails make it more difficult to track work completed and deliver an effective service.



If that doesn't work, escalate it to your secretarial management level.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:24 AM on June 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

"Dear Sarah,

As you well know, I work for multiple attorneys. Until recently, I was assigned to you and to Sam, and due to Sam's preference and working style, I was able to accommodate many of your additional requests that otherwise I may not have been able to.

However, with the addition of Scott, I am now working for three attorneys, and I must balance my time accordingly. I am always happy to help and assist you however I can, but I do need to ask that at this time we find a way of streamlining some of the processes that have worked in the past. Please keep in mind that according to my job description [if this is true, that is], I am to give each of my attorneys equal time, and this will require me to prioritize tasks by level of urgency. Unfortunately, this may mean at times that someone else's requests are placed above yours, just as at times your requests will need to be placed above those of others.

I am happy that I have been able to fulfill many more of your requests than is standard, but at this juncture, I need to ask that we work together on making this adjustment.

Thank you for your time, and I appreciate understanding,

Disgruntled Secretary"

And then stick to it. One thing I have found that works for me for tasks that really are minor and that the person giving them to me wanted me to do was to ask, "When do you think you would need this by?" And if I can do it, then I take it and do it. If I can't, then I say, "Would [a little while later] be okay because I am working on [x] for [y-person] and this needs to be done by [earlier time]?" Or take it and say, "I can have this for you by [reasonable time]," and if she says she needs it earlier, say, "Okay, I can do my best or if you like, I can show you how you can do [x] so when I am unable to do it, you'll be able to."

With Scott, you nip it in the bud by treating him the same way you will need to treat Sarah, only from the beginning. If necessary, what you may try to do is have a meeting with all your attorneys and have them discuss their needs for the next week or month so they can understand how your time needs to be divided.

Then, if you think this would be helpful, I'd keep track of how many hours you work for one attorney v.s. another and assess if it is because that attorney has more going on at that time than someone else and work to balance it out in the next week. What this log will do will also help is see if overall the workload is reasonable for one person and to see if there's anything that you're asked to do that the attorneys really can do for themselves. It may be that after a month, you have to set some standards for all the attorneys, in which case you would send them all an e-mail explaining that copies need to be done this way from now on, or requests for x need to be made 24 hours ahead of time so you can guarantee your ability to finish it in a timely as well as professional and well-done manner.

I used to work for 20 odd professors. I now work for about 10, and in addition to working for them, I have a number of departmental administrative matters to handle. Being blunt and yes-ing the professors into a "no" or "later" has worked well in getting them to take on some of the more minor tasks that I really need them to suck up and handle if they want other more important matters that they just seem to think gets done by magic accomplished. I usually find if I explain to them exactly what is going on and when I can get something done for them by, they're reasonable about it.
posted by zizzle at 6:25 AM on June 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

Ugh, on reading that I've got lots of repetitions. (support x 3 and best x2). Feel free to edit for style. God, I've been writing too many business comms.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:26 AM on June 23, 2010

You could just "forget" to do the unimportant pain in the butt things...after a couple of times, she may get the message that you can't take care of her every need and she'd better reserve her requests for your help for the truly important. Or you could provide a little kabuki theatre pretending to search your desk for "that little thing" she gave you to do!

I'd try a group meeting as well, but a lot of the time the lazy will smile and agree then continue to try to get you to do their work.

My condolences to you--I have experienced this many times.
posted by AuntieRuth at 6:30 AM on June 23, 2010

It's harder to do it in person, but I think you're better off talking about this than sending an email. And I agree that having three together works better, if you can do it that way - they'll start to compromise among themselves if you do that.

Focus on what you can do, and why that's the "higher value" work for clients and the firm.
Then, if things get tough, get one of them to run interference for you. If Scott needs you to do a big project, he should tell Sarah (or you tell her, but have her take it up with Scott if she has an issue with it).
posted by Sukey Says at 6:40 AM on June 23, 2010

I would totally go to a supervisor or manager or something. Point out that your work load just increased by over 50%, and you were working full time to begin with, and list the tasks you are doing now and ask which ones you can de-prioritize. Sarah sounds like she may not take any change well. It will probably go over better if you can say, "Now that I have three lawyers instead of two, I've talked to the office manager about what work takes priority, etc."
posted by BibiRose at 6:52 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first thing you need to do is to get over your resentment of Sarah. Your bullet points just scream it out and, no matter how delicately you rephrase them, it will be obvious to Sarah and anyone else in earshot. You will either need to admit to yourself that you created the spoiled person she has become, or decide that taking on a third attorney means that everything will need to change. Whichever strategy you use to get over it, keep reminding yourself that the past is the past and it's a new ballgame now.

The key to juggling the demands of three attorneys will be to negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Take the initiative in setting deadlines for projects you do for them, then meet those deadlines. For tasks you think could/should be handled by the attorneys themselves, suggest deadlines that are far enough out that they will hopefully decide it will be far easier just to do it than to wait for you. Alternatively, you can indicate that this particular task can no longer be accommodated with your increased workload and offer to teach her how to do it herself.

Pestering emails should always be either ignored or given a reply that reinforces the deadline you already agreed to.
posted by DrGail at 6:52 AM on June 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

Ugh, the advice to send them an email telling them what you won't do anymore or to sit down in a meeting with the three of them is completely unrealistic. Unless your firm is very different from any I have worked at, three attorneys are not going to attend a meeting called by their secretary. Sad but true. And your email isn't going to carry a lot of weight, either.

One thing you haven't mentioned there are their relative levels within the firm. Are they all senior associates? Is one a partner? Because in my experience, a partner's needs trump the needs of a senior associate, and a senior associate's needs trump the needs of a junior associate.

At any rate, I agree with the recommendation to speak to your supervisor about how you should handle this situation. That's really the only proper thing to do, as your supervisor manages your workload.
posted by amro at 7:03 AM on June 23, 2010 [18 favorites]

As a baby lawyer, I was trained by a great legal secretary at a big ol' law firm and I've trained a few myself. I agree with the folks saying that it's clear that you resent the hell out of Sarah and that you need to focus on the tasks and what you have time for, not your annoyance that Sarah has asked you to do things that are easy and that she could do herself. (If they keep downsizing the secretarial pool, your attitude won't help you -- you need all your attorneys in your corner if further cuts are coming.) The truth is that most attorneys coming up these days could do a lot of your work, but that's not an efficient division of labor. Clients will not pay for lawyers to format tables on briefs or sending letters to opposing counsel. Sarah's job is to bill and shifting things to you helps her do that.

I would not send an e-mail. When my secretary has workload issues, she comes in my office and we hash it out in 3 minutes. E-mail seems passive-aggressive to me.

Instead, sit down with all the attorneys you work for and let them all know in general terms that you're juggling more now and you won't be able to get to easy task X until everything else is done. When Sarah asks you to do something that is lower priority, tell her you can't get to it until the end of the day (or if there's no reasonable way to get to it, tell her that, letting her know what you're working on that prevents it.) Even better would be to have the person in charge of the secretaries to make a general announcement first to soften the blow and open the door to further discussion. This could wind up improving your relationship with Sarah in the long term.
posted by *s at 7:12 AM on June 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

Attorney at big law firm here. Seconding what the people who have actually experienced law firms say: don't send an e-mail. Don't ry to call a meeting with all three. Don't, for the love of God, "forget" assignments that you don't want to do for Sarah.

And of course, the crucial question is WHO IS THE MOST SENIOR? If it's a Big Law Firm, there will be an established pecking order. You almost certainly know it already. The attorneys know it already. They will not want to cross those lines. So go talk to your secretarial support person, and find out just what the unwritten firm policy and what will work for you. If the secretarial manager isn't helpful, discreetly go to other, experienced, respected legal secretaries at your firm. They will have had issues like this before, and talk to them about how they do it.

In some firms, having the secretarial manager make the first announcement, as *s says is a good idea. In other places, not so much. Get a feel for how your firm handles these issues -- again, this sort of thing happens a lot.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:36 AM on June 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

The first thing you need to do is to get over your resentment of Sarah. Your bullet points just scream it out and, no matter how delicately you rephrase them, it will be obvious to Sarah and anyone else in earshot.

This leapt out at me as well. Don't call the stuff she wants you to do "trivial," it hurts your case. If it's trivial, you shouldn't have any trouble banging it out, right? Delegating tasks isn't lazy. From your characterization, I think you're setting yourself up for coming across as complaining that your job is making you do work.

Okay, tough love over. Certainly there are lazy people who take advantage of their secretaries and would do better to improve their attitude. I find that sticking to a more formal tone helps. (Even if you had slipped into a more casual tone before, just ramp it back up to formal over the course of a couple of weeks and it'll be the new normal.) Being very strict about when you will be able to have tasks completed realistically, as zizzle described, is like magic.

And follow up verbal conversations via e-mail to give yourself a paper trail. No-one can complain about your performance if you have documentation of how clear you've been.
posted by desuetude at 7:42 AM on June 23, 2010

Yeah, the relative positions of these attorneys is going to matter -- and that doesn't just mean partner vs. associate, it also means partner-with-book vs. service-partner, etc. If Scott has a book, even if he's junior to Sarah, he is (in the law firm hierarchy) more important than Sarah. (Please don't jump on me for this -- it's certainly crappy, but it's true).

First, does Sarah know you now also work for Scott? When I was at a big firm, all attorneys supported by a given secretary got an email from the secretarial manager whenever a new attorney was assigned or when assignments changed. If such an email didn't go out, make sure Sarah knows you're now working for Scott also, even if it's just by casually stopping by her office and asking how things are, and, oh, by the way, just to make sure she knows, you're now supporting Scott, too ("who seems like a great guy, I think he's a good addition to the firm, don't you?").

Then, as Sarah gives you assignments, reply immediately (or as soon as you can) with an estimate of when you think you'll be able to complete it. Don't be passive aggressive and don't be snotty, just say, "I got the file, thank you. I can have the task finished for you by noon tomorrow -- Scott has a hearing tomorrow morning and I'm putting together exhibit books for him.- As soon as I'm done with that, I'll get your [letter printed on letterhead/copy job submitted/delivery request made]."

And do that EVERY TIME she sends a non-urgent request or a request for a trivial task that she can do herself. Sometimes you may be able to do the task for her immediately, sometimes you won't, but you'll always end up doing it if you don't set boundaries that will redefine her expectations.

Sitting down with all three at once is unrealistic; sending an email won't do anything. What will work is changing the way you deal with tasks as they come in -- reply immediately or as soon as you can with an estimate of when you can get something done, a short explanation of what you're currently doing that takes priority, and a reassurance that the task will get completed as soon as possible.
posted by devinemissk at 7:43 AM on June 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

For the first problem, you should talk to your own supervisor about having too much to do, and ask what you should prioritize. I'm guessing that unilaterally deciding whose tasks and which tasks are more important than others is probably not in your job description and the way this was written seems more like you want to stick it to Sarah than following any sort of firm-wide policy or precedent.
posted by grouse at 8:28 AM on June 23, 2010

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks everyone, I'm going to print this thread out and use it as a collective guide on how to approach Sarah and Scott. I truly appreciate all of your feedback, especially those that relate to being in a similar position as either attorney or secretary. Sometimes, I lost sight of viewing things from another's perspective, so this really helps.

A few more details:

-This is a patent (intellectual property) law firm.
-Sarah: junior Associate & in her early thirties. Has never worked in a law firm before.
-Scott: junior Associate, former patent agent & solo practitioner. He is in his late 40s to early 50s. He was a solo practitioner for 5 years, and has never worked in a big law firm.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:42 AM on June 23, 2010

The missing information, as others have indicated, is which attorney is at the top of the pecking order relative to the other two. Most senior attorney gets priority service. If that's Sarah, then that's going to require some very gentle upward management on your part, and yes you should probably consult with your office manager or other supervisor who can walk into Sarah's office and say "DG is now supporting another attorney and as a result s/he can no longer perform X function for you. If you need a refresher course in how to do it, please let me know." Big Firms have people both to manage admins and train attorneys on firm technology, make use of that.

The attorneys know who stands where in the pecking order, and if you tell the most junior person, "I'm currently doing X for #1, I can get to that when I've finished with this" and you are in the clear.
posted by ambrosia at 8:51 AM on June 23, 2010

I work at a big law firm and share my secretary with two others, including a very senior partner and someone who is basically on equal footing with me.

Don't send an email, at least not to the lawyers.

Two things jump out at me from the above advice. First, I agree with the people who say don't call it trivial. Whatever it is, it might not be "time sensitive". That doesn't mean she has to do it herself. I ask my secretary to do all kinds of things I COULD do myself -- making copies, entering time, digging client matter numbers. The firm doesn't want me doing any of that because I can't bill for it. Your job is to do whatever she asks, as long as what she is asking is work related.

The other is, don't listen to the people who says that you should do the work for the most senior person. My secretary is awesome because she prioritizes on a better basis than that. She understands our workloads, and tracks our deadlines, and knows that sometimes my work is more important/time sensitive than senior partners. She isn't afraid to tell him that. She gets kudos from all of us on that. But she also communicates it - she tells me, she tells him. She asks other secretaries for help if she needs to.

You never know when your least senior person is going to become the most senior. Or most important. Or whatever. You don't work for them, you work for the firm, and you need to assert yourself as such.

So, when someone asks you to do something that you can't get to right away, let them know. If there are two deadlines at the same time and you can't get the work done, tell whoever asks for your help second what the deal is and let them hash it out. Tell Sarah that her non-time sensitive (Not menial or trivial, but not as time sensitive) things are going to sit while you work on Sam's stuff. Say "I'm currently doing X for Sam, and it is on a tight deadline; I'll do yours next" if she says "I'm on a tight deadline too" then you tell him what to do.

We also tend to cut all this off at the pass by having Friday afternoon or Monday morning discussions that last 10 minutes about what everyone's got on the calendar for the week.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:28 AM on June 23, 2010 [8 favorites]

On review, this sentence makes no sense: if she says "I'm on a tight deadline too" then you tell him what to do.

I meant, if she says she's on a tight schedule also, you should ask them to discuss among themselves and tell you want to do. If you can't find someone to help you, which is really the best solution for everyone, assuming that there are other secretaries on your floor.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:05 AM on June 23, 2010

Former big firm law partner here. Take the very good advice from the lawyers with experience in this field and ignore the rest (i.e. do not send that email). Lawyers are an "interesting" breed and juggling (potentially) big egos and time-sensitive issues is a talent.

My former secretary had a high-maintenance senior partner, a very busy junior partner (me) and a busy associate. She was a seasoned and crotchety secretary who absolutely ruled the roost. She pretty much told us what was going to happen and when. She also solicitied help from others when she was too busy and we all really did need help right away. She could always get this help because in her precious down time, she always helped out the other lawyers' secretaries.

Essentially, she scared the crap out of all of us-- but we loved her because she ALWAYS got the job done. If I had to go back to a big firm again, I would hunt her down and beg her to come out of her well-deserved retirement.
posted by murrey at 4:00 PM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

This lawyer says call a meeting re: Prioritzation of your work. Ask them to decide for you. Don't call anyone lazy or anything and be very clear what the arrangment was at the beginning.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:54 PM on June 23, 2010

If you let your feelings about the female attorney show, you're dangerously close to being viewed as that female secretary who resents the female attorney and the "trivial" tasks she delegates to you. I have had a young female secretary who've had attitude problems like this. Example: On a busy day, I asked my former secretary to create a fax cover sheet and emailed her the language to type into it. She, assuming she's being polite, offers to SHOW ME HOW TO CREATE A FAX COVER SHEET. Thanks, but no thanks. Clearly she thought that this was something easy that I should do myself. Big mistake. When attorneys are busy, they are not supposed to do things like make copies, create fax cover sheets, fetching exhibit tabs or go rummaging through files for pleadings. YOU are supposed to do this exactly because it is "easy." And if the "dream" attorney Scott is busying himself making copies and formatting pleadings instead of drafting motions, then he just doesn't have enough work to do.

HR should be able to counsel you if your workload really is unmanageable. And ditto on all the advice on prioritizing. But don't act snarky or give off the vibe that you think Sarah is just "spoiled."
posted by KimikoPi at 10:54 AM on June 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

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