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Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I am new at the firm, and I have a legal assistant who has already saved me several times. She is invaluable, and I wanted to show my appreciation, so I invited her to lunch. At first, she eagerly accepted, but as the date was approaching she declined, saying she thought it was better if she did not go to lunch. How can I show my appreciation without having things get awkward?

A: Yes. I realize the reference to “the date,” was not intended as a pun, but that may be part of the issue. Your legal assistant may be concerned about office gossip. Or she may not be certain about your intentions. There are also other dynamics in play. At law firms, lawyers usually have far more power than legal assistants. Your assistant might not want her peers to think she is trying to curry favor with an attorney.

And because you are her boss, lunch might not be as enjoyable for her as it would be for you. Think about it this way: If a senior lawyer asked you to go to lunch, even if you really wanted to order spaghetti, (with all its attendant swirling and slurping) you pick something else.

Or it might just be lunch. Lunch takes time. Lunch has to happen at a particular time. And people are busy. Your assistant’s reason could involve any of these things or none of these things. The key is to communicate and let your assistant know you appreciate her help.

Here are some things to consider:

1.  You have already accomplished your purpose. By offering to take your assistant to lunch, you have shown your appreciation. Your offer is not diminished because your assistant decided not to accept. You seem concerned that you “picked the wrong gift.” But in this context, it’s the thought that counts. Your appreciation is likely to mean more to your assistant than lunch.

2.  Don’t just thank for the miracles. As time passes and your assistant “saves your life” again and again, it could be easy to take that for granted – like breathing. But make sure you remember to say thank you for the day-to-day support. At law firms, coincidence is not what makes things to go smoothly. (As with everything in law, the rule of reason applies in all cases. Incessant thanks will seem insincere.)

3.  Remember the milestones. Milestones can (usually) be non- threatening times to show appreciation. (Avoid Valentine’s Day.) As the year comes to a close, consider giving your assistant a card. You might even include a modest gift card along with your thanks for the support over the past year. And you forget your assistant’s birthday at your peril. A modest flower arrangement (not red roses) may send the right message. And on her birthday, your legal assistant might be more receptive to lunch – either with you or a small group. But instead of saying, “Let’s go to lunch for your birthday,” leave a graceful exit. Instead try, “For your birthday, I am happy to take you to lunch.” At the end of a big project, a token of appreciation may also be appropriate.

4.  Show respect. The importance of respect may be obvious. But respect means more than being pleasant and showing appreciation. Make a conscious effort to prevent unnecessary stress for your assistant. Check in every morning. Plan ahead. When an urgent project is looming, remember to let your assistant know early. Yes; there are inevitable crises at law firms. But your assistant will appreciate advance notice and regular updates about the support you need. And when you ask for something extraordinary, acknowledge that fact.

5.  Make sure your assistant knows you have her back. Beyond regular kudos, your assistant needs to know that you will advocate for her. If she makes a mistake, keep things constructive. Use the experience to learn how to work better together. At review time, make sure you take the time to provide positive input. Other attorneys may be too busy, and your input may have outsize influence. If it’s comfortable, tell your assistant the feedback you provided. That can help alleviate stress at review time.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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