Problems With "The Help"

Matthew Richardson Columns, Lawyer 51 Comments

The other day, I asked my secretary to get me a file. She told me to ask a paralegal who was “familiar with the deal.” I got the file myself, but asked the paralegal to pick me up some Chinese food while he was out. “Not in my job description,” he said. “Ask your secretary.” Now, I’m asking them both: Who the hell do they think they are and what do they think they do here at the firm?

A major flaw in BigLaw is the failure to properly delineate job responsibilities. I know for sure that the partner is at the top, I’m in the lower middle, and that first-year associates are scraping the bottom of the barrel. But what happens below that, in the bowels of BigLaw, is beyond me. As far as I can tell, anyone working at a law firm who isn’t a lawyer is simply the help. Unfortunately, the help are obsessed with establishing some kind of artificial pecking order designed for the sole purpose of insulating them from menial tasks that they believe should be performed by anyone who doesn’t share their job title. 

I may bitch about my secretary being MIA (and that does piss me off), but when she’s here, I have an even bigger problem with her. In fact, it’s the single biggest problem I have with all of my underlings. They THINK they have very narrow job descriptions that don’t include things I actually need them to do.

I’ve never seen a handbook laying out what jobs I can dump on paralegals and which I’m supposed to assign to secretaries. Neither group brings a unique skill set to the table. From where associates sit, paralegals are just secretaries with slightly more ambition. But I’ve actually heard some paralegals snicker when I asked them to do work that they think is “beneath them.” Is there some sort of hierarchy I’m unaware of?

Here’s how I understand BigLaw’s depth chart:

1. Partner

2. Associate

3. IT Guy

4. Cleaning Crew

5. Mascot

6. Paralegals and Secretaries

According to the depth chart, only partners should be able to give associates shit. And never, ever, ever should an associate take lip from anyone below the No. 2 slot, especially the para-taries (yes, they are the same).

It’s on the depth chart!

So how do you explain this conversation?

Me: I need these incumbency certificates drafted.

Secretary: Isn’t Kevin [a paralegal] trained to do that?

Trained? We all know its monkey scribe work. I went to a top law school to be the most overpaid of the monkey scribes. Deal with it. You sound like a barista at Starbucks complaining when someone asks you to serve oatmeal. “I’m a barista, I don’t do food service.”

It’s exchanges like this that drive associates f-ing bonkers.

First of all, you don’t question a direct order. If I say we’re going to Jersey to bury a dead hooker in the Pine Barrens, my para-tary better be ready with a shovel and change for the tolls. 

Second, this is what she is really trying to say: I am a secretary. There are certain things that secretaries do and don’t do. This falls into the “don’t do” category.

Here’s what I’m saying when I ask you to run out to the deli and buy me lottery tickets: I’m a lawyer. There are certain people I can boss around. You’re one of them.

But hey, if establishing clear definitions for paralegals and secretaries is that important to you all, we can have a decathlon to determine the pecking order.

Paralegals and secretaries can compete in the following categories:

1. Dressing Like a Professional

2. Editing

3. Filing

4. Handling of a Closing

5. Social Interaction

6. Dry Cleaning Pickup Speed

7. Deciphering My Date’s Voice from Other Whores With My Work Number

8. General Reaction to My Abusive Ways

Okay, wait. I can’t think of ten, so it will have to be a heptathlon. Or, maybe paralegals and secretaries can hash out their respective job descriptions with a death match—kind of like bum fights, only more corporate. The winner gets to be my bitch, and the loser gets to be the winner’s bitch. Pecking order established.

In the end, I don’t care. I really don’t. I assign work to para-taries based on your proximity to me. If you are close, I am going to tell you to do something. It’s that simple. Neither of you is better than the other, just like no associate is better than a partner. You can hate me if you like (I’m sure I deserve it), but just stop trying to play that game of hot potato with my assignments. Otherwise, I will personally send out an anonymous firm-wide memo tomorrow asking that secretaries and paralegals titles be replaced with a catchall title: The help.

If you want to avoid that humiliating fate, my dear para-taries, figure out who does what and stick to it. Or, just accept the fact that you’re both equally low on the totem poll, and are therefore fungible enough to do each other’s work. Either way, I never want to hear a paralegal tell me that something is “secretary’s work” or vice versa.

Matthew Richardson is mergers & acquisitions by day, Unethical & Amoral by moonlight.

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  • Bill Dugan

    You know, he’s telling it like it is.  Secretaries….can’t live with them, and can’t live without them.  I had a secretary at my first firm who never wanted to get off her chair.  Literally.  She would do most anything if it did not involve getting up and moving.  I thought she had bad gas, but it got to the point that the only time she got up was to go eat (and dump).  The others at the firm all knew about it, and nicknamed her Queen Flatass.  If you see a broad with a big flat ass, and she’s assigned to be your secretary, watch out!

  • Boston Anon

    Hey Douche Bag, go pick up your own Chinese food and dry cleaning.  You want to ask the help to do something work related go right ahead.  Otherwise, get off your dead ass and do it yourself.

    • Kirsten

      Please some street person slap this shit out of this guy on his way to work.

  • John

    Maybe they blow you off because you are a snobby douche bag.  Just a thought.

  • para

    the issue in delineation is the billing! we paras have to bill for our time and secretaries can’t. therefore, don’t give us non-billable shit, like letters!

  • associate

    This is nothing new. Being a younger associate, I deal with middle aged secretaries all the time. Just because you are 20 years older than I am does not make you smarter. I’m still your boss. Get over yourself.

  • canadouche

    @ associate: re-read your post.  apply to self.  repeat as needed until head removed from arsehole.

  • Brian

    Douche-nozzle, if you want someone to bring you Chinese food, pay the delivery guy from the Chinese restaurant.  It’s not your secretary’s job, and it’s definitely not your paralegal’s job.  Hell, with your snobby, douchy attitude, my guess is your paralegal is more qualified to do the legal work.
    The way you treat your staff tells all of us reading one thing: you probably choke on partner cock each morning because ass kissing isn’t enough.  You, and people like you, make me embarrassed to be a lawyer.

  • BL1Y

    Secretaries should be retitled as assistants.  Not administrative assistants, just assistants, so that way they’ll know that getting Chinese food is in fact part of their job.  I don’t think the same goes for paralegals though, but para in the comments is wrong.  Just because you bill your time doesn’t mean you should only be given billable tasks.  Associates and partners have to do tons of non-billable stuff and so do you.

  • Anon

    I agree!!  Who the hell do these secretaries think they are?!  We work our asses off.  Their job is to help us.  No questions asked.

    • Kirsten

      Although I work for lawyers, I married a doctor, so I married up. Generally, whether secretly or not, people think lawyers are scum. This is no reflection on your secretary or paralegal. It’s called a stereotype, and in this case it’s appropriate. This dude’s a dick, and those who work for him know it.

      Most of you are still children when you come out of law school – children with huge egos. It’s not natural to give in to children and whether it’s your secretary or not, he/she is not going to get you lunch unless he/she likes and respects you for you.

      I work for mature lawyers who don’t have the time or inclination to write an article like this, and I’m happy to do whatever they might need without thinking about it. If I had to work for this Biyatch, I’d be counting the days until I could shove his deadline up his ass and walk out.

  • Ace in the Hole

    This is easy.  The paralegals should only be asked to do a bare minimum of non-billable stuff – while attorneys have to do it, it sucks, and you try not to pass the shittier parts of the job downhill.  (Karma is a bitch, remember that.  Also, we get paid more for a reason, and it’s not just the J.D.) Secretaries, on the other hand, are assistants – BL1Y is right.  If your secretary is refusing to do things that would save you time and allow you to bill more, she is not doing her job, which is to help you get your work done, whatever that means.  My assistant would get me coffee, lunch, edit a document, or whatever – so either you’re a douche and she’s reflecting mistreatment back at you, or you’ve got yourself a non-performer, and you should make it clear to her that this will be reflected in her reviews and raises, and that when the next round of layoffs comes around, secretaries who aren’t helping their associates bill more will not likely be the ones whose jobs are spared.  (And if you DO give her a poor review, make sure to emphasize that she is refusing to do basic document editing rather than talking about whether she’ll get you Chinese…)

  • smarter than you

    Hey f@#k tard…you clearly suffer from the same inflated sense of self worth that most d-bag attorneys do.  In case you have missed it, as an attorney, you are the help for those of us who were smart enough to escape the legal profession before being bogged down by law school, its debt, and an ever present misery.  Before entering the business world, I was a paralegal (an experience which further proved how douchy and weird most lawyers are), and I frequently found that most of you dorks cant differentiate between your head and your ass hole without your paralegal.  So in the end…GFY and I hope you are enjoying your future prospects of misery and douchbaggery.

  • miserable associate

    Even thought the writer seems like a complete dickwad, I have to agree with a lot of what he says. It can be very frustrating when you are trying to get things done and your secretary or paralegal doesn’t want to go beyond the work they think is in their job description.

  • Deep Throte

    Matthew Richardson, you speak the truth. It’s like gospel for the bitter lawyer.  The others who posted are clearly all parataries.

  • tbd

    No one wants to do stuff they feel is beneath them, but clearly it’s a waste of company money to have associates doing administrative work. It sucks for the secretary but it’s a waste of company money to have lawyers fetching files.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose I could live with most of that attitude if my secretary was hot.  But she’s a real barker, and should therefore do what I say.  Woof woof!!!

    • The Barker

      Get over yourself. Seriously. You are probably some old jagoff on Cialis hoping for some young hottie to make you feel young again. I know because I am the barker you fired so you could feel like a man. Hope it worked you piece of human shit!

  • mj

    Dear Attorney,
    I am sorry you dealt with an uppity paralegal. Most of us are really smart, responsive, and have limitless billable time to run your errands.  It’s a real shame that your staff does not understand the glow that emanates from your nether regions.  You should show them so they can kiss it.


  • Craig

    Asking someone to get a file, or some Chinese food “while he was out,” is not a big deal. It is not like he is throwing bagels at their heads. Anyone with any type of work ethic at all would just say yes, instead of taking it as an insult. It seems to me like this secretary and paralegal have their own inferiority issues with their jobs, which they project outward.

  • John Krease

    Its really an embarrasment that Richardson has to tolerate these secretaries and paralegals.  I bet if they were about 20 years younger and their asses were a few inches smaller, they would be treated a little bit differently.

  • Anon Male

    Women:  Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em. (Other witticisms provided upon request)

  • notyourassistant

    I for one would have gotten the file, I don’t understand why that secretary refused.  I’d also go out and get lunch/coffee, whatever, for my attorney if he/she wanted it as I’d love to get out of the office for some air (notice I didn’t say fresh, I work in NYC).
    With all the people looking for work, why are these people fired? 
    Even if the writer is an a*hole, there is no excuse now not to do whatever is needed to let the attorney bill more hours of real legal work.

  • Midwest lawyer

    Your treated the way you allow yourself to be treated.  Treat these workers as children.  Sit them down and tell them the facts and what you expect.  Get the shit out in the open. Tell them, “ If “we” want jobs we have to work.  Now get off your ass and get me the Chinese so I can get some work done that will help pay your salaries

  • Anonymous

    At my firm, we’re so sick of treatment like this from paralegals on our team. Hey, we’re working 70 hour weeks here. You’re complaining about an extra hour!
    We had a lunch the other day discussing the poor poor performance of our paralegals. With the bloodbath in NYC biglaw staff in the recent future, we were wondering when the bigshots would realize that would could fo some recruitment of much better talent in the next few months.
    I agree with the poster. We’re all fearful for our jobs and will work relentlessly in this economy, doing things that we think are beneath us. For someone to think otherwise is just ridiculous. They can be the one’s let go and we can bring those with ambition back.

  • Long Time Secretary at Biglaw

    Where to begin.  First of all, you will help your career if you learn to treat all categories with respect and courtesy.  My guess is you will learn this soon the hard way when you piss of the wrong person.  Let me explain the difference between the secretary and paralegal to you.  In a nutshell, paralegals bill.  So, the lottery tickets and Chinese food cannot be billed to the file.  The monkey scribe drafting is billable…………..

  • Anny

    OMG!  I feel exactly the same way… about my legal department.  Anyone who even considers law school is obviously lacking either creativity, basic quant skills or both.  But for some reason, they think they can help innovate, take my business in a new direction or some such silliness.  We didn’t hire you to think, we hired you because the state requires us to hire a licensed attorney to do certain bits of monkey work.  Until you can get a PhD in unlearning your legal education, stay the hell in your mold!

  • Anonymous

    It’s even worse where I work.  Not only do they do less than 2 hours of work in an 8 hour day, they carry know-it-all attitudes that includes a belief that they can give attorneys work assignments and can tell partners what kind of strategy to employ in a particular case.

  • Anny

    Another thing… who exactly are these people that work on the lower tiers of a complete back-water of a profession.  Seriously, the APA should classify a desire to serve attorneys as a form of clinical depression.  Come work in Bio-tech.  Because we’re generally more positive and more profitable we treat our guard dogs with more respect that your current employers treat you.

  • Magic Circle Jerk

    This is a highly prescient piece.  Just this morning idiot secretary was screaming to one of her poor friends on the phone about, I shit you not, the fact that her boyfriend had written on another woman’s facebook page. 
    I asked her to make copies of a presentation and bring them to a meeting I was late for.  She refused, saying she was too busy with “important work”, and returned to yapping on phone about boyfriend/facebook/pathetic life.
    She is currently getting “counseling” down in HR.  See, the HR trolls are useful for something!
    Secretaries: FYI: 1 hr of my time is worth more to the firm than your whole week at work.  I am not able to bill when I have to get lunch/drycleaning/scut work.  Act accordingly

  • neveryourassistant

    Why don’t you tell us how you REALLY feel about the “help”?!  Wow.  I mean, I understand your point of view; however, there is such a thing as “treat people as you wish to be treated”. 
    I work in the, as you put it, “bowels of biglaw”, for two senior partners and am happy to get them whatever they need, whether it be a file or a whole file drawer, and definitely have no problem taking a break to get lunch.  I am happy to get up and go to my job each day and work for them (and learn from them, as I am in law school at the moment) because they treat me like a person and consider me valuable to their practice.  Just a suggestion:  give the attitude a bit of an adjustment and i’m sure the bottom dwellers would be much more apt to perform their job duties.  The key is not getting them to perform the task at hand, it’s getting them to do it well..which can only make you look better.

  • Seen It All

    Dear A-Hole:
    On the real-world depth chart, associates like you rate even lower than the homelss guy outside the office building.
    You, my friend, need to get a grip and learn to be a team player because as it now stands, there’s a surplus of associates in the real world. If I worked for you I’d make sure you f*cked up a deal or case deadline and would wave to you on the out of the building to become that homeless guy!

  • Anonymous

    Dear Seenitall & NeverYourAssistant-
    Your comments betray why you will always be secretaries and at the bottom of the totem pole.  Get over yourselves and realize the reality of your (insignificant) place in the universe.

  • ThisIsASymptom

    From the perspective of a junior associate with prior experience outside the legal profession, one of the most disconcerting things about law firm life is the “totem pole” culture.  Work environments are virtually always hierarchical, but the billable hour and a conservative nature make law firms take the totem pole concept to the extreme.  As an attorney, I know I will either work my way up said “totem pole” or be pushed out of the firm.  (Unfortunately, however, the lives of attorneys many years ahead of me still revolve around their less-than-top position on the g****mn pole.) Junior paralegals will almost certainly leave in a few years, either to go to law school or to get out of law, and it’s appropriate for new grads with very little experience to do grunt work.  But secretaries and career paralegals will be low on the “totem pole” for their ENTIRE CAREERS.  As a result, the “totem pole” culture seems like a perfect way to undermine secretaries’ and career paralegals’ pride in their work and motivation to perform at their best.  To the extent the secretaries’ and paralegals’ work requires experience and skill, law firms need to recognize them for the professionals that they are.  To the extent that we just need copy-clerks and gofers, we should hire people to do that, and expect they won’t be around long before they go back to school, etc.  Hmm, perhaps instead of secretaries and paralegals, we should have parataries (long-term professionals) and assistants (short-term monkey gofers).

  • Jim

    Wow, Matthew Richardson needs a punch in the face.

  • ThisIsASymptom

    Actually pretty logical piece. The only issue I would take is referring to them as “professionals.” They are nothing of the sort. They are careerists.  This is what they will be doing for the rest of their careers.
    A professional is someone who adheres to a higher code of external standards (traditional professions are law, medicine, and clergy).  The mouth breathing secretary from Long Island screaming about her pathetic romantic life on the phone outside my office is certainly doing this for her whole life, but she is definitely not a “professional.”

  • Magic Circle Jerk

    sorry, that comment below was directed at towards ThisIsASymptom

  • Jaded former asshole

    I suspect Matthew gets a lot of crap and resistance from the support staff becuause he treats them like shit.

  • TryRealWorkThenComplain

    Maybe if you quit big-timing people and realized you’re working with human beings things would be better for you.  I’m a summer associate at a top law firm, but my mom taught me manners–that includes saying please, thank you, etc.  I’ve only worked a few weeks with my secretary and she would get me any file I asked for even if she had to take the elevator down 40 floors and walk across the street to get it, but I treat her with the respect she deserves–not like a peon.
    Tip:  Learn how to be a man, then things will look up for you.

  • Southern

    I think you have jerks in every profession. This guy needs a foot up his ass.

    As an IT professional with three degrees I am the most educated person in my firm of 40 attorney’s. I take crap because that is my job but there is a professional and courteous social line I will not cross and expect the same from my bosses. You have about 3 lawyers who went to fine schools and talk to the staff like dogs. Some take it, I do not. I am too educated and prideful to take crap from what I call “little people” bosses or not. If you do not want to be challenged, hire uneducated and dead end career people.  Seems like that is what most attorney’s want: Yes people.
    Which is the philosophical difference with Law school vs higher education: Winning vs the Truth.
    Fuck Attorney’s

  • wiseone

    “Either way, I never want to hear a paralegal tell me that something is “secretary’s work” or vice versa.”
    Since you are crying out on a message board instead of enforcing your authority with the direct reports, it is my feeling that you are a pushover with uncertain perspectives for a partnership.  Lear to delegate assignments with no tolerance for insubordination, because, well, you are an attorney after all.

  • Me

    I worked as a temp at an investment bank for lawyers/bankers. You guys do not need a secretary.

    Fax, copy, file…zzzzzzzz…hire a trained dog. Pay with treats. Secretaries are a waste of money.

  • morelikeathirdyear

    I think you guys (including the author of the above bitch-session) should check out the posts under File Under “Administrative Extinction”.  And maybe you need to be more careful about whom you retain in secretarial/administrative positions.  Every level at a law firm, from Partners on down, has its slackers and goof-offs – albeit some more than others.  It’s just more visible in the secretarial/administrative assistant realm because we are out in the open and are subject to more, being politically correct, transparency.  I’ll bet, though, that there are a handful like myself employed by your firms and that the attorneys they work for know their true worth – most attorneys just won’t share that knowledge for fear of losing their coveted slaves to someone higher on the chain.

  • NCLawyer

    I am so tired of hearing things like “As an IT professional with three degrees I am the most educated person in my firm of 40 attorney’s” from the non-lawyers at my own firm.  (I also note that the grammar is incorrect, as the plural of attorney is “attorneys,” not “attorney’s.”) There seems to be an idea that quantity is more important than quality, that a number of certificates earned from online universities or community colleges makes a person “more educated” than someone who graduated from a top-ranked liberal arts college and then got a law degree from a top-ten lawschool. Granted, rankings and tiers are somewhat subjective, but they’re not THAT subjective.
    I know many people who have degrees/training in subjects completely foreign to me.  I respect their knowledge; I do not try to practice medicine, fix cars or program computers.  All I want is a paralegal or secretary, whichever, whose filing I don’t have to do for them because they are too godd@mn busy enforcing their boundaries to figure out how to put things in alphabetical order.  What difference does it make to me if you are “more” educated than I am about any subject whatsoever if I routinely find documents from case A in the file for case B?  I tried being nice, I tried being a bitch, both only got me more shit and took too much energy.  I have settled for distant and dismissive. 
    I had a truly awesome secretary once.  She was so awesome she was promoted to office administrator.  I’m happy for her, and must admit that all of my computer, office supply and timeliness-of-expense-reimbursement problems have disappeared.  Which is good, since I now devote the hours I used to spend bitching about those things to correcting the filing of her replacement.

  • Sra

    You, sir, are a dick.

  • http://n/a Understanding yet upset paralegal

    Most Paralegals went to paralegal school to get a legal education. It may not be as in depth as what lawyers went through in law school; however, it was a legal education! Paralegals know the law, can interpret statutes, regulations, case law, etc., Secretaries DO NOT and CANNOT!!!!!

    Most paralegal programs must be approved by the ABA in order to be considered valuable. While I don’t pretend to understand the reasons for the secretary or paralegal refusing your request, I do believe they deserve more respect than to be treated they way you have treated them.

    No one is better than anyone else!!!! No matter what your job title or education level.

  • TheBoss

    Holy sh*t, I was just made partner, and stumbled upon this article. I want to deck this guy. Okay, maybe he’s a good old boy, and in his mind anyone not his equal or better should bow to him because he’s stuck in the 1950’s, but times have changed dude. Maybe I just happen to work in a great firm (which I do), but it’s not a vacuum.
    Here’s a clue: The view from the top doesn’t mean anything if you have no clue what’s happening around you. So, yes, you need to know who does what. You don’t need to know their kid’s names and anniversary dates, but taking your head out of your @ss long enough to learn what goes on in your own office actually benefits you! If you bothered to treat people with some human dignity, they might like you enough to actually OFFER to pick you up some lunch when they go out without you even having to ask. Hello, McFly?!
    I work insanely long days, but I show appreciation for those who stick it out with me, and they DO ANYTHING I ASK (or without even asking)…because I treat them like human beings.
    I hope by now Mr. Richardson has either learned his lesson or is retired and gumming a salted margarita glass on a beach somewhere.

  • McFly

    Amazingly enough a partner with harsh mandates would certainly benefit with a well seasoned and experienced secretary who knows how to handle this mentality decisively and with grace and style. People are people and make their own path, but someone who ‘knows’ how to pave that way for a partner would be appreciated when the economic ‘cuts’ arrive before year end. So title be damned, “It’s the economy”!

  • Happily Providing Lunch to This Attorney

    It’d be my pleasure to provide Chinese food to this gentleman of the legal profession. Of course, his Chinese food would be mixed with either some of my bowel movement and/or nasal fluid. Eat up jerk off, eat up!

  • Ashlynn

    You my dear friend are a D|K

  • Ashlynn

    Just when you think you have met the biggest asshole on the planet …. along comes Matthew Richardson …. you win that contest …….. jag bag