From Paralegal to Associate: Are you still doing “office housework”?

I recently read an article written by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on women doing office housework.[1]  It couldn’t ring truer to my ears than now.  As a paralegal, it is your job to do all the admin tasks being delegated by the attorneys.  But as an attorney, I somewhat still am asked to do those admin tasks on top of the workload of an attorney.  Recently, during a trial, not only was I expected to do all the preparation for the trial, but I was also expected to put the exhibits together, and prepare the binders.    What is one supposed to do?  Speak up? Be a team player? Point out that there is staff to do those tasks?  Is the “Esq.” at the end of my name just a glorified title?

One article in the Above the Law summed up perfectly my sentiment: “[The] female [attorneys] and I are constantly asked to perform administrative tasks while men [lawyers] in the firm are allowed to keep doing their work. I’ve heard some of them refer to us as the binder b****.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but ponder, it is more than just morphing from being a paralegal to an associate, the problem is BIGGER.  The problem comes from a deeply held gender stereotype.  A woman is always being asked to do admin tasks over the males working because she is “good” at organizing.  And this is not a problem in the legal industry; it is in the business world in general.

When one of my male colleague help on something in the office – as small as that task may be – he is showered with praise and rewards.  A female?  It’s only normal that she helps.  A thank you suffice.  And if she dares not to help, or offer her help, she is perceived as selfish.  A man suffers no same backlash.

“When men do help, they are more likely to do so in public, while women help more behind the scenes.  Studies demonstrate that men are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors — like showing up at optional meetings — while women engage more privately in time-consuming activities like assisting others and mentoring colleagues. As the Simmons College management professor Joyce K. Fletcher noted, women's communal contributions tend simply to ‘disappear.’”

Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, finds that “professional women in business, law, and science are still expected to bring cupcakes, answer phones and take notes.”  These activities don't just use valuable time (aka billable time); they also cause women to miss opportunities. The person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point.

So how do you say no, without coming across as selfish?  Why should you be the one expected to make a detour before work to bring the cake for a colleague’s birthday?  Why should you be the one expected to answer phones if the receptionist is out at lunch?  

Maybe by using a little bit of humor and a sassy attitude? A California lawyer said that the best way to do so is to smile sweetly and say, “I’m not sure you want someone with my hourly rate making coffee.” Another woman, who was asked to order lunch for a meeting, reminded her colleague that the receptionist was sitting right out front.

The right strategy is to effectively remind your “male” colleagues that a staff is being paid and expected to do that task: “hey, I would love to spend my day putting the exhibits into a binder, but that’s a perfect assignment for XYZ, the legal assistant.”  Of course, remember to be nice and show that you are a good team player while dodging the ball!

It may not be fair, and it certainly may not be fun!  But we have to start by each of us, women, standing up for ourselves, by being more assertive and by stopping the stereotype that we should be the ones expected to do the office housework.  This will free us to do more projects that really matter (for the firm’s own benefit!).


 “Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee” – New York Times, Feb. 6, 2015.

 “Women In the Legal Profession Continue to be Treated Like Crap” – Above the Law, Dec. 1, 2015.

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