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?

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

Further Reading:

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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”.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. *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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. (And incidentally, I don’t work at a firm and don’t have a secretary or assistant to chronically underreward, so I’m not really sure why I deserve to be called “scrooge.”)

  17. ok so you don’t work at a firm and your telling someone with 25 years of working in biglaw that my situation is not like all of the others. It was the same with everyone at Farella, MoFo, Bingham, Wilson, Shearman, Brobeck, Fenwick but what do I know.

  18. As a solution to determining what to give, it seems like we’ve come up with some factors.

    Where do you live? How much does a nice dinner cost there? It’ll by different in NYC than in Chicago and Kansas City.

    Then, What type of firm are you at? Someone working in big law is probably expecting more than a smaller firm.

    How many people does your assistant work with? What does she do for you? If she works for you and you alone more is to be expected than if she’s got a partner and 4 associates. If she picks up your drycleaning, orders lunch, and covers for you when you’re out then give more than the occasional copy and stamp.

    Does the firm pay a bonus to assistants, and how much? If you can find this out it should help a lot. If the firm is giving out $100, but all other factors point to a big gift on your part, then give big! If the firm is handing out 10% of her salary, then you aren’t the real bonus giver.

    As a former assistant (and current law student) I was SO happy to receive $250 one year and $200 another in Portland. It basically paid for the Christmas presents I was giving. The firm also paid an actual bonus equivalent to one paycheck (2 weeks pay).

    To the frustrated assistants here, I’d say wait the economy out and find a job you don’t hate. Or go to law school. I realized that if I stayed an assistant I’d be doing nearly the same amount of work and getting paid less than half if I didn’t invest in the education.

  19. if you use your office services department at all during the year, don’t forget them at the holidays. Order them a couple of pizzas for lunch one day or give them gift cards to a local lunch place. They make crap money, stand on their feet all day, and seldom get “please” or “thank you” from the attorneys. It must really suck for them to hear us attorneys complain about getting low or no bonuses this year, when they’re probably worried about getting laid off.

  20. AintNecessarilySo :

    I’m just going to say how I see it, and how most other assistants see it (every single one I’ve ever met).

    Only cash. Don’t worry about it being impersonal. Our feelings are not hurt; quite the contrary, we love that you understand that we may need the cash to pay our own Super, or our rent, for that matter (particularly nowadays).

    I’m not going to go all boo-hoo on you – we have a pretty good life right now compared to others: we have a job. Yeah, it’s a crappy salary, but, after all, we agreed to it, didn’t we? And there are crappier salaries out there.

    I, personally, try to perform equally for all my assignments. I treat first-years, most likely, even with more care – it’s scary for them their first year and they really want to impress. I understand that.

    I try to get mid-level or senior associate’s work done first, if at all possible – because they usually have the heaviest loads and the most responsibility. And bring in most of the money which, frankly, pays my salary.

    I like my partner – he’s brilliant – and I have no problem whatsoever doing his personal stuff – he has bigger fish to fry than screaming at his laundry service. And I’m very good at screaming at laundry services.

    Thankfully, I’m very good at multitasking, and understand that while a huge document is copying I can scream at someone on the phone. And that you can totally work on a document while five more are in a printing queue.

    Will I perform worse for any of the above if they stiff me for the Holidays? Probably not. I don’t stoop to that level. They’ll still get the same level of help. But admittedly – I’m most likely an exception to the rule. And it’s not because I’m so wonderful.

    I just know that Karma’s a bitch. I’ve seen it happen more than once. And – well, I’m not completely void of pettiness – I enjoyed it immensely every single time.

    As for the amounts: in NY, $100 is a first-year gift. Mid- and senior-level associates gave $300-800, in my experience. I’m not saying what my partner gives – but I will follow him to his grave if he needs me. Literally.

    But please – no gifts!!! I hated every single one I’ve received, but felt obligated to wear it or carry it or display it and it didn’t feel good.

    And no gift certificates, either. You have no idea where I shop. TRUST ME. YOU DON’T.

  21. Anonymous :

    It is pretty annoying to see people who think that they have the right to tell me how much money I should give as a _gift_ just because they know how much money I make. Nevermind that over half of it goes to federal and state taxes, as well as the other half dozen agencies that get a piece, and I have a mortgage, school loans, daycare, etc. It is not my responsibility to give some of my hard-earned money to you just because you are doing your job.

  22. AintNecessarilySo :

    >>It is not my responsibility to give some of my hard-earned money to you just because you are doing your job.

    Then don’t. It’s not written in stone that you should.

  23. It’s pretty annoying to serve someone and get nothing. Maybe your waitress will spit in your food, your Nanny will forget to pick up your kids, your maid will steal from you. We can only hope.

  24. You forgot maybe your secretary won’t bust her ass and call her friend at the court to get your filing in on time, afterall that’s not part of her job. Maybe she’ll just give it to the courier and hope for the best.

  25. I say thank you to my secretary every single time she does something for me, and I have already gotten her holiday gift. But, please stop acting like you are entitled to some small fortune just because I make more money than you.

    And as for hoping that the maid will steal or the nanny will forget to pick up the kids…I highly doubt that an associate can afford a maid and a nanny for multiple children…I know I cant…I cant even afford one of those. Also, if you are hoping for the “best” and that is the best, then you probably don’t do as good of a job as you think you do.

Add a comment.

Questions? Check out our commenting policy. Tech problems? Please report it to the tech team.