Women Lawyers' Journal
(a publication of the National Association of Women Lawyers)
If you think it’s tough being a woman attorney in a profession traditionally dominated by men, consider what it’s like to be a legal assistant or paralegal. Support positions in legal workplaces are typically occupied by women. In keeping with their lower status, women support personnel are normally expected to assume a deferential and caretaking role. Go ahead, ask an experienced legal secretary how many times she’s been the object of an attorney’s angry outburst — she’s probably given up counting.
But women attorneys often face challenges in their relationships with support staff that their male counterparts don’t encounter. Karen, a partner in a mid-sized law firm, was stymied when she asked me to coach her. She’d hired an assistant with significant experience, hoping to eliminate the need for extensive training. But rather than providing the efficient help she’d expected, her assistant, Mary, was only complicating Karen’s practice.
For instance, Mary took it upon herself to reorganize the files and edit Karen’s letters. When Karen explained her standard client-engagement procedure, Mary suggested changes to “improve” the process. Would Mary have behaved this way if her new boss was a man, Karen wondered?
Gender and position can become very confusing in the relationship between a woman attorney and her female support staff. As a woman, others have implicit expectations of support and nurturance from you. Your assertion of authority is a violation of your gender role, so it’s likely to be met with a more negative response from support staff than a male attorney would receive.
Making friends won’t help. You are the boss and need to maintain appropriate boundaries. What kind of relationship will help you get beyond these challenges so you can get a great work product out the door? Learn Professional Goals My suggestion is that you take on a coaching role. As a coach, you’re not just trying to persuade your paralegal to do work the way you want it done. The goal of coaching is to develop the person you’re coaching, not just to fix the problem. And why go to the trouble? Because it’s likely to produce the results you want — and generate multiple dividends.
To effectively coach your support staff you’ll need to commit yourself to learning about their own professional goals. Karen began her coaching relationship with Mary by empathically listening to her description of her previous accomplishments. It became clear that Mary was proud of what she’d learned and wanted Karen to appreciate the level of sophistication her years of work had helped her develop. She hoped to become more than just one of Karen’s support staff: she envisioned a role of trust and independence in which Karen would be free to leave the office under Mary’s competent management.
Assuming a coaching role allowed Karen to harness Mary’s motivation and energy. Demonstrating her commitment to Mary’s goals created a bond of loyalty and trust. Karen’s compassion didn’t confuse Mary about the boundaries of their relationship. Instead, it opened the door for a discussion of Karen’s expectations and how Mary could use her well-honed skills to help Karen’s practice. Mary didn’t mind adapting to Karen’s system as long as Karen recognized Mary’s potential contribution. As the coaching enabled Mary’s sense of competence to grow, she was inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Certainly Karen had to spend more time coaching Mary than she would have if she’d simply told her how she wanted things done. But besides building long-term social capital, Karen reaped other benefits. She found that compassionately connecting with Mary was a relief from the stress and pressure of her legal practice. Rather than draining her, these coaching conversations actually energized Karen. As a minority member in a firm of mostly male partners, Karen felt less isolated. It became obvious to her that she wa developing leadership skills that empowered her in her dealings with staff, colleagues and clients. Karen discovered another advantage of coaching her assistant: feedback. As the boss you’re typically kept in the dark about what’s not working until it’s too late. But Karen’s relationship with Mary gave her access to the information she needed to address problems before they got out of hand. When your paralegal fails to organize the documents for a case and you know she’s capable of better, maybe it’s time for you to
consider becoming her coach.