Poll: Holiday Presents for Administrative Assistants and Secretaries

A number of readers have written in asking about holiday presents for administrative assistants. We tend to agree with Above the Law’s advice last year — cash is the way to go for holidays. Still, we thought we’d poll people to see what they’re giving (and how much):

In general, our understanding of administrative assistants/secretary bonus compensation runs like this:

  • for birthdays, give flowers — this alerts the rest of the office that it’s the secretary’s birthday (and gee, doesn’t s/he have a great boss for getting her/him such swell flowers?)
  • for unfortunate events, give food baskets — for example, if your secretary breaks her leg or her grandmother dies, it would be rude not to send something to the hospital or to her home — and food is better than flowers because it recognizes that your secretary is probably too overwhelmed to be cooking right now
  • for service above and beyond secretarial duties (anything from watering your plants while you honeymoon to covering for you while you interview elsewhere), give gift cards, plants, take him or her out to lunch, or give him or her a more personal gift
  • for year-end holidays, give cash — by itself.  As we said above, we agree with the AtL thread last year, and have heard that you should give your secretary $100 for each year you’ve served your company or firm (so, a sixth year would pay $600, regardless of how long you’ve had your secretary — although we’ve heard some people cap that at $500) — on the theory that this is additional compensation to them for the year, and no one appreciates getting their paycheck in the form of a really amazing pair of shoes or a gift card to a fancy restaurant.  (We’ve heard time and time again that this is true for Big Law firms — we must admit, we don’t know what the rules are for smaller firms and other industries.)

Readers, as always, please comment — what will you be giving this year?  Do you agree with our theory of secretarial compensation?  What would you recommend doing if you had your secretary for less than a year?

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Photo Credit: Christmas present, originally uploaded to Flickr by kjoyner666

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  1. If my secretary ran my life the way 8 yer assistant does, I would have no problem shelling out $1000. My secretary is lovely, but she has never taken care of any personal tasks for me (I would never ask her to). She does timesheets, expense reports, and the rare filing. I do my own copying, answer my phone, file my docs, etc. So $150-200 for a secretary I have had 6 months seems reasonable. She also has several partners and another associate, so she should make out pretty well.

    FWIW, I am a West Coast BigLaw midlevel.

  2. People please don’t turn these comments into ATL repeats with lawyers and support staff fighting! Face it, you both need each other and every firm has both mean and nice attorneys and both awesome and lazy support staff.

    Last year my assistant was of no help to me as a first year associate. She was afraid to use the computer (we got her a typewriter, no joke) and was dumb as rocks so I did everything myself. I gave her $50 and resented that I gave her anything. This year my assistant is awesome, hard worker, smart, willing to go the extra mile. I don’t work in BigLaw although I do work in DC so I’ll probably go with $100 and a nice bottle of champagne. That seems to be the going rate at our firm for holiday gifts.

    FWIW our firm cut attorney holiday bonuses but WILL give support staff bonuses because we do value them and they are more likely to be hit harder by an economic downturn.

  3. The people who posted these comments above are cheap, ungrateful and spoiled! Secretaries get paid nothing compared to you and we have to deal with all of your whiney demands. If you were REALLY so smart you would realize what a secretary can do for your career. If you’re an associate, you give some home made candy or cookies you had better watch out because they will drop a little comment here and there about you to the Partner they also work for. And for you Partners, you’ll have no idea everyone in the Firm thinks you’re an asshole (because your Sectretary will tell them so) when you give your secretary $100.00! It’s part of the job and the game they play, a small amount of cash to you ($1,000) can improve their life in ways you have no idea. I know some staff that don’t have enough money to even buy food and hide that fact. Why do you think they are hovering around the conference room after a lunch meeting to get a free lunch? It works both ways, when you do good, they will let everyone know how great you are which will help your career!

    • Where do you work that secretaries are paid nothing?

      At my mid-size boutique, the secretary makes about 1/2 what mid-range associate makes. A good secretary is hard to find & worth the money.

      Also, at least around here, the partners talk to each other. I know what the other partners are getting their secretaries, and it’s nowhere near $1000.

  4. db, I don’t know how you live, but $1000 is not a small amount of cash to me (a midlevel at biglaw in SV)…that seems an entirely inappropriate amount of money to give to a person and I would feel very uncomfortable giving that to my secretary

  5. Anonymous :

    Okay, so what do you do for a good secretary that has more money than you do (hubby makes lots — she’s working to give herself something to do to keep from being bored as an empty-nester)? I mean when she’s giving $1000 to every charitable request that comes down the hall, giving her cash seems pretty silly. So how do I say thank you otherwise? I know — something “personal” — but I don’t cook or craft and she buys whatever she wants. Now what?

    • Flowers are almost always a welcome addition to a secretary’s desk. It’s not the money, it’s the thought, in this case. I have been working in law (Big and otherwise) for over 30 years, and I am a little taken aback by the theory behind giving secretaries and admin assistants gifts that have been expounded here. I work for three partners and two associates. Two of the partners I have worked for for many years. They give me between $250 and $350 every year in the form of a check in a holiday card. The other partner choose to give me a gift certificate, probably because he feels that cash is too cold and hard as someone mentioned. I love all of these gifts, but may I point out that the associate I work with has never, ever, ever given me anything. And I have never, ever, ever given him short shrift in the service or gossip department because of it. (I did, however, ask another associate to have a talk with him because he tends to be clueless about many things in life, and I thought I’d give his next secretary a break.) I give excellent service and I cover butts because that is part of the excellent service I give. And I do it out of pride, not because someone gives me cash in an envelope at holiday time. The prevailing attitude in these comments that one must bribe one’s secretary to get excellent service offends me, and I certainly hope it isn’t true of most secretaries.

    • Something personal? I gave my secretary a nice cashmere scarf to wear because the office AC is hell, some chocolates, and flowers last year.

  6. LA Big Law Assistant :

    I have been a Big Law assistant in Los Angeles for over 25 years (at a few different firms) for different level partners and associates both. For the most part, partners have been very generous, giving (at the minimum) 100-200 for every year that I’ve worked for them plus a nice gift (last year it was a Coach wallet). Associates — $100, pretty much across the board. In my opinion, 10-20% of the attorney’s bonus would be appropriate for a good assistant that you value. Also, pretty good advice is to check with your peers, because assistants tend to talk to each other.

  7. Anonymous: If she is into charitable giving, you could try and find out what her favorite charity is and give a gift in her name along with a nice bottle of wine. If you look to order from a nice, small vineyard, that you can’t buy at the grocery, you often get a better value for the quality and it won’t look like you just picked something up at whole foods on the way to the office.

  8. Both you Anons… waaa, waaaa! Even first years make $160,000 plus bonuses. What!? A midlevel biglaw only gets a $20,000 – 30,000 bonus? Secretaries will never make that kind of money in their lifetime. Don’t get me started! After working in big law for over 24 years, I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone that has a rich husband and they only work to keep busy. Are you nuts? Do you have any idea how much your assistants actually make, it’s next to nothing. $100 for every year of service, what a joke! You are lawyers for a reason I guess, stingy and conservative and it’s all about you! And you say your secretary gives to charity, and you say giving her cash is silly, what a loser. We all in huge debt and try not to look too sorry so you don’t walk all over us even more. Excuse me will I get back to typing my midlevel associate’s labels (over 200) for his personal xmas cards on my own time after everyone has gone home. The suggestions here are so riduculous, they are all posted by lawyers, who else would look at this site about wearing the latest fashion to work, secretaries can’t afford it!

  9. The comments here are so far off base, they are only posted by lawyers. Who else would look at this site for wearing the latest fashion at work, secretaries can’t afford it. $100 for every one year of service, who the hell came up with that? What a joke! Don’t you other secretaries believe that! First years make what? $160,000 out the gate. Midlevel please! You get what kind of bonuses – $20,000 – 30,000? Waaa, Waaa, anons. Cheap, stingy, elitest, it’s all about you! Your assistante gives to charity, and you say giving her cash seems silly, what a joke! After working in biglaw for over 20 years, I’ve never met one secretary who has a rich husband and they only work to keep busy, are you nuts? We all are in huge credit card debt and don’t want to look to sorry so that you don’t walk all over us when you pull up in your bmw. Excuse me while I get back to typing my midlevel’s xmas labels (over 200) for his personal xmas list on my own time after he has gone home.

  10. What are the tax implications of large cash gifts to secretaries? I would think it would be exempt as under the gift tax cap, but if it is a payment for services rendered it may not be.

  11. N – typical thinking. How can I benefit. Upright Scrooge. What a pain in the ass it must be to live with you.

  12. dear firm, please do not give me a check as a bonus. Cold hard cash is just cold and hard.

  13. Office services gave me a bottle of wine last year! Now that is nice coming from office services to a secretary. Personally, I’m highly insulted when an attorney gives me a gift card for 50 dollars. I still have one in my wallet for Boarders from last year. Getting 100 from a partner, would be time to not care about his practice or success at all. I think I’d love it to see them have a difficult time after giving me 100 or even 250 for that fact. Of course I give everyone in my group a gift and the 1st, 2nd years and even beyond give nothing, not even a verbal happy holidays. Nothing! Shame on all you! Thinking that the firm will give a bonus is a joke, lucky to get 100 after taxes.

  14. I am conflicted on how to respond to some of these posts. Normally I am sickened by “greedy associate” posts–all about how they work so hard and the bonus isn’t enough, and why aren’t they all valued? As if our extremely high salaries weren’t enough. But I am appalled at some of these secretaries. I understand that you make much less. But really, an associate (and many junior associates have no idea that cash is an expected gift and truly think that something personal is the nicer way to go) makes something homemade (after all, I don’t think anyone can say that most associates have lots of free time) with his/her free time, and you will be vindictive and gossip about your attorney? When that attorney truly thought s/he was doing something nice? And a partner who gives $100 is automatically labeled an asshole? And funny, I thought what made a partner an asshole is asking their secretaries to stay late 5 minutes before quitting time because they couldn’t be bothered to arrange evening assistance ahead of time, or verbally abusive partners, or those who demand their secretaries run their personal lives as well. Where is any semblance of understanding anything about the history and purpose of the holidays? Maybe it is because in my family, we don’t exchange gifts, but instead do some kind of nice service, but I am just appalled. Why is $50 something to be insulted about? I worked at a firm that recently collapsed, and my former assistant was taken along by the partner (who I know for a fact had to fight tooth and nail to bring her) to a new firm–not one day of unemployment. That is because she did excellent work. Now there’s a reason to do good work and to not be vindictive and spiteful because you didn’t get enough cash during the holidays. And also, not all associates are rolling in the dough. Beyond our enormous debt, many are also helping their parents and siblings out financially. I’m a BigLaw mid-level and plan on giving my assistant (with whom I have worked with about 4 weeks only) a $100 Visa or AmEx gift card. I hope she recognizes it as what it is–a gesture of appreciation for putting up with my “whiny demands” (which consist of filing, typing work related items, sending items to doc prod, etc…all your typical work-related secretarial duties) though, I don’t whine, and these duties are the whole point of why secretaries are hired and paid (albeit most likely not a salary approaching a first year’s). Oh, and not that it really matters, I am not getting a bonus at all because of the timing of my old firm’s collapse and going along with a partner to my new firm–so please, no 10-20% of bonus arguments please. Although if I had received a bonus, most of it would have gone to my student loan debt and the rest towards our savings. I do believe my assistant is a lovely woman, though, and will appreciate it, and will continue to answer my phone when I am out and to run around like crazy when a huge filing needs to get out the door. It is because she believes in doing her work well. And I really do value that and show her my appreciation every day with simple “please” and “thank yous”.

  15. 100 is not enough! Extra money goes to your student loans or to “our” savings… You know how much I have in my savings? 50 dollars (the minimum to keep it open) and I’m in my 40s and a career legal secretary.

  16. LA Big Law Assistant :

    Anon above got there first, but, really … “appalled”? You are lucky (as I am, and believe me I know this and am thankful for my job) to have a savings. Like my colleague above, I have the minimum in my savings to keep it open (just in case — ha). I never said we gossiped about our attorneys. I said that we talked to each other. We don’t so much talk about what we get or got, but what we didn’t or don’t. Remember that movie, it was called something like “Day Without A Mexican,” how about we try “Day Without Your Legal Assistant.” The recent woes in the market may have cost you some of your portfolio which you will be able to recover much easier at $200,000 than I will at $60,000, but it has cost most of my peers most of their retirement savings and we just won’t be able to make up for that in our life times. Some of us have or are losing homes and don’t even get me started on how we are going to get our children into a good college so that they don’t have to work for, but can actually be attorneys. Make sense now, you pompous jerk? Pleases and thank yous are not special treatment. A nice little gift at the end of the year is.

  17. *sigh*

    For the record, I make $130k/year in at BigLaw in the midwest. My “bonus” this year will be less than $5k. I have $150k of student debt, and I support my significant other (because he is out of a job in this crap economy — and, he also has $150k of student debt). So I live paycheck to paycheck, drive a car that is 10 years old, and pray that nothing breaks because I have zero savings.

    But you’re right, I’m still doing better than most people, and I am grateful for what I have. Not all BigLaw makes NYC money, though, and you seem to be overlooking that fact.

    I’m willing to agree that we are talking about very different circumstances here. I wish that you were my awesome secretary. I wish that I made 160K + 20K bonus. Unfortunately for both of us, neither of those things is true.

    I’m not sure if you’re just trying to get everyone all riled up here, but I’ve said my peace, and I’ll leave it at that.

  18. I mean, the thing is, associates aren’t responsible for assistant compensation. If we all agree assistants are underpaid for the work they do, then we should be talking to firm management about raising those salaries, perhaps at the expense of attorney bonuses.

    But putting it on individual associates regardless of whether they’ve ever even asked their assistant to do anything or whether their assistant is competent or not seems a bit weird. Are we turning holiday gifts into a kind of charitable donation? Charitable donations are awesome, but there’s not really any particular reason that “your assistant” should be everyone’s favored charity. On the other hand, obviously everyone’s agreed that the practice is to give something, and if you have a good relationship with your assistant, that should probably be more rather than less. But expecting young lawyers to be compensating for otherwise low salaries across the board doesn’t seem right.

  19. To A Reader – this isn’t a question on the bar exam. We aren’t asking for you to compensate our low salaries. If I just did my legal secretary job it wouldn’t be enough to keep me around. I do things that a maid and waitress would do. To those that say my secretary doesn’t do anything, it’s your fault, or the person before you she supported, you don’t engage us, get us involved in your practice, year after year we just disengage and become completely numb. It takes a while to get excited about anything again but it can be done, it just won’t happen over night. For those of you in that situation – why not shock her and give her a nice bonus, in this economy you’ll be the talk at her family xmas – Scrooge!

  20. Well, anon, but some people don’t want secretaries that act as maids or waitresses. Certainly I would never say that someone who expects their secretary to do work outside their job description and then didn’t reward them for it wasn’t a jerk. And again, yeah, attorneys should also be monteraily acknowledging people who give them legal support at the holidays. It just doesn’t seem like your situation necessarily needs to be emblematic of all lawyer/assistant relationships.