Delegating: Using Your Assistant Well

how to use your assistantReader E wonders what you can and should ask your assistant or secretary to do — and what is off limits. Great question!

I have been fortunate and I find myself a busy exec at a consulting firm at a young age. I am working 60-80 hours a week and just learning how to leverage my assistant. She is helping me with my expenses and time entry, but I suspect she and I could both get more out of the relationship. I’ve grown up in a world where I can do almost everything myself (like book travel) but I’m struggling to manage my work/life balance. I could use help with just about anything but as I dive into the world of asking for help, I don’t want to find myself at the other end of the spectrum where I’m asking too much or being inappropriate. Advice that outlines do and do not categories or mentions creative ideas might be most helpful.

Congrats to be a busy exec, and a special congrats on getting what sounds like a competent and helpful assistant — they can be hard to come by, so treat him or her like gold! (And apologies in advance for every time I say “her” meaning the assistant — in addition to being Reader E’s situation, it’s easier to type than “him or her” every time!)  (Pictured:  Screencap from Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.  We’re right on top of it, Rose!) Oh, and PSA: Don’t forget that tomorrow is Administrative Assistant’s Day. Check out our poll on what to get your assistant.)

For my $.02, you can delegate the following sorts of things to your assistant, depending on your job:

1) Expenses / time sheets / other simple data entry. This is what most people will use their secretaries and assistants for, and in some companies — particularly where an assistant is shared between four or five people — that may be all that he or she is asked to do.

2) Grunt work like photocopying, mailing, faxing, scanning, even typing things that can’t be OCR’d (or proofreading things that have been OCR’d).

3) Liaison activities. This is where your assistant will start to be more useful to you: have him or her act as a liaison with colleagues, clients, and opposing parties, to schedule conference calls, meetings, and more. Give her access to your calendar (there are ways you can set up a “shared” calendar in Outlook, if memory serves, that lets you only show her *some* of your activities — same with Google Calendar) so she doesn’t have to run in to check with you every time.

4) Filtering. You can absolutely ask your assistant to screen calls and even emails.  In fact, with a lot of senior people it’s difficult to get an email to your target without having it filtered by the assistant first.  (I once worked with a Big Wig who, in addition to needing filtering, just wasn’t comfortable with email yet — his assistant got all of his emails and would print out the important ones, and he would then scribble a response on the printout and hand it back to his assistant to be typed.)  Depending on what your work entails, you can even have him or her skim different publications and flag any stories that might be of interest to you.  For example, when I was 22 and a very junior editorial assistant at a magazine, I read 30 magazines on a weekly basis for the EIC and flagged different stories that I thought might be of interest to her, either for a story idea for our publication or from a “you should know what our competitor is doing” perspective– similarly, I now have my virtual assistant read a lot of the RSS feeds that end up in the Weekly Roundup.

5) Dictation/transcription. I truly believe that there is a lost art to dictation, and I never quite mastered it, try as I might. As a lawyer, I primarily found it helpful when I had been reviewing cases, treatises, and other documents like deposition transcripts and more where I would find big chunks of text that I wanted to use in the draft of whatever I was writing but didn’t want to type them — so I would dictate them. I tried it both with my assistant at the time and the speech-recognition transcription program Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and there is a learning/teaching curve to both. Personally, I found Dragon more helpful because I could see what I had said aloud almost immediately which made proofreading easier, whereas with my assistant it may have been a few days before I saw the transcribed notes. I’ll also note that transcription jobs can vary in difficulty: if you’re writing a one-page letter using simple, regular words it’s going to be a lot easier than if you’re taking notes on an arcane area of law with a lot of terms of art, or if, say, your consulting work involves medical or pharmaceutical terms or acronyms.

6) Research for work-related things. For example, let’s say you need to create a number of posters for a presentation — your assistant can call Kinkos and see what the deadline is, what format the image files need to be in, what the cost variations are, and so forth. Similarly, if you’re having a work-related lunch you can have your assistant call different restaurants to see who has a table available at a certain time or date; same for work-related travel arrangements.

7) Things your assistant thinks she can do that will assist your professional life. If you’re dealing with an assistant who handles everything you give him or her very well, take her out to lunch to thank her, and talk about how you can better use the relationship.  For example:  “You’ve done an amazing job with everything I’ve given you, and I can tell that you’re capable of more.  What else have you done in the past?  What else might you think that I could give you to do?”  Your assistant might also use this opportunity to tell you what jobs she hates doing, or what she wants out of the relationship (maybe she’s studying to do what you do in the future; maybe she wants more flexibility with her schedule, like longer lunches or earlier nights) — listen to her, and if you can, accommodate her on at least one or two items.

Things NOT to ask your assistant to do:
1) Personal tasks. At least in most situations that I’ve been in or witnessed, the secretary/assistant’s job is not one of personal assistant. You should not task her with things that have no relation to the job at hand: booking vacation flights for you, picking up a box of tampons, or even getting you coffee on a regular basis. (Although, if a client came to your office, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask your assistant to get the client a cup of coffee.) If you have that rare assistant who is happy to get you a cup of coffee on a regular basis, or is willing to pick up personal items for you at the drugstore — again, treat him or her like gold: I view all of that stuff as “above and beyond.”

2) Anything that crosses into YOUR job. For example, it’s one thing to have your assistant print out pages from 5-10 different websites or scan/photocopy pages that will help you do an analysis for your job — it’s another thing to ask your assistant to do a rough draft of that analysis herself.

Readers, what else do you use your assistants or secretaries for? What do you consider off limits in terms of secretarial tasks?

Comments

  1. Does anyone find that using things like DTE are actually easier to do by yourself? I tried a few times to record my time by hand and then have my assistant do it, but I lost more time and forgot what I was doing more often than if I just click on a matter on my computer. I should add that I have a heavy motion/appellate practice so it’s a lot of sitting at my desk. So long story short, I do my own time entries.

    • soulfusion :

      I do my own time entries as well. I’ve tried to write it out for my assistant to enter but it ended up being a longer process that way. I keep track of the start/stop times and client in a diary but often the day flies by too quickly to write out each task so I enter the time and descriptions ideally every couple of days but by Friday at the latest.

      Related, I also use the time I set aside to do my time entries to force myself to review my inbox (helps me describe everything I did that day) which helps me catch things I need to respond to that I may not have had time when it first came in AND I sort all the emails for that day into folders once I no longer have to do anything on it. This really helps me control my inbox which is constantly pushing into the 2-400 volume if I don’t keep a handle on it.

    • YES! It should be, IMHO, done contemporaneously. I worked with a paranoid senior associate who would call me up and berate me for doing time contemporaneously, because people might know what I was doing before the deadline to release time. He also typed up elaborate time sheets in word, but refused to use DTE himself.

  2. “The first week I was here, I remember overhearing some secretaries complaining about how completely AWFUL this one partner was. You would have thought this guy–who in reality was perfectly nice– was a miserable excuse of a human being. What were they actually complaining about? He didn’t ask them anything about their personal lives.”

    Great post. I can’t overemphasize how important this is, and also the whole “saying hello to them when you get into the office” thing. Being an overall nice person who is interested in your support person’s life can make or break the relationship, I have seen it a lot and experienced it once personally. You don’t have to be besties with your assistant (and I actually think that can be a bad idea) but put forth some effort to know them and understand their life a little bit. Once I figured this out, working with an assistant became worlds easier.

  3. Felicia G :

    My assistant was so bad when I was at a large NYC firm, she never did my work and always flirted with the guys that called me. So when it came time for assistant’s day, I did NOT give her a gift. She then dissed me with the senior partner, and then I left the firm.

    I have learned always to make nice with the assistants even if they are dummies.

  4. LegallyBlonde :

    Off topic, but I have a one time use code for 20% off and free shipping at White House Black Market. The code is 2805. Please post if you use it.

  5. I ask my assistant to do tasks I know will help her develop as a professional. For example, she’s a great writer; so, I’m going to ask her to write blog postings or newsletter blurbs – and credit her!

  6. I agree with all of Kat’s points, except perhaps the last. There are many employers where an assistant would do some independent drafting or a first draft of a report. This could be because: 1) The assistant is being trained for advancement; or 2) The assistant has special skills that the employer wants to use. I don’t see anything wrong with assigning tasks that are parts of the superior’s job. The superior remains on-the-hook for performance and would need to review the work in draft form to correct mistakes or create the final version. An example would be an assistant crafting a demand letter in a bank or a market analysis in a marketing or advertising company. Perhaps this is less common in the legal field, but aren’t there paralegals who draft some motions?

    • Yes, but a paralegal and an administrative assistant are worlds apart, at least in most big law firms. Paralegals would never get your mail, answer your phone, do your time entry, etc. At my firm, paralegals actually have assistants themselves for that purpose.

      • I was thinking of smaller firms, where perhaps there is less of a distinction between paralegal and assistant. One of my clients has an employee who functions in a split position of paralegal/assistant.

  7. My current assistant is worse than useless. Ironic, worse I’ve had, and I’m now at a huge company with big title and pay. Prior, government lawyer jobs and such, thought those admins stunk but would do anything to get them back! My company’s staffing model is the main problem- they like to have us do stuff ourselves and have a ratio of 1 support staff to 12 or more people. Such bad management- paying me wayy too much to fax receipts in… and there is a morale loss aspect to that as well as my lost productivity on higher level tasks.

    The assistant has three executives she serves before getting to the rest of us, so she basically never does. For a while, I tried to be patient, but things were getting missed with repercussions. So a few of us officially withdrew from her services which is working better, but far from ideal, as we don’t have any help at all. She is quite passive aggressive, might be depressed, and is not in the office a lot, so trying to keep working with her just wasn’t workable. I don’t see the company changing its model- in fact it’s getting worse as my team is growing at higher levels with no line for more support. I wish they realized how much money this is wasting and how annoying it is- honestly it’s the biggest adjustment for me in the job and one of the few things that make me question whether I’d stay in it long term.

    I sure miss my prior 2 assistants in old job, who were shared by 8 people. They were smart, diligent, and nice. Not perfect, but pretty darn close. Doing a more than full time job on a global scale while having to worry about faxing receipts in properly is irritating. The company’s internal procedures are so complicated the assistants get ‘certified’ in the programs- which someone with my schedule certainly doesn’t have time to do nor would I- so they put us in a situation of shooting in the dark with a lot of the admin stuff by not staffing admins properly.

    Any advice out there? I’ve made my view known to immediate manager. Beyond that, have located a few other assistants I can ask things of in a pinch. But long term, this is a tiring arrangement.

    • do you have a mail/copy room? They can do your faxing/copying/bindering/couriering, weed out your junk mail, and other stuff. Like I mentioned above, I have only met my assistant once (I’m sure she’s a lovely person and serves the other associates well), but I can get most of my admin stuff accomplished by asking the copy room staff to help me out.
      True story – at my last firm, we were in another city for trial (at the firm’s local office) and we had one of the copy room guys come with us. He was shacked up in the same hotel, pulling the midnight hours for the duration of the trial. It hadn’t been part of the plan, but a few of us had been so reliant on him during trial prep we simply couldn’t get our work done without him.

  8. I’m a legal assistant/secretary and I am assigned a lot of personal tasks that have nothing to do with work (#1 on the list of things to not ask your assistant to do). Whoops!

    I get surprised when I interview for legal assistant positions and I am warned that I will be getting coffee for the attorneys and doing a lot of clerical work. I don’t see anything wrong with that… so I am confused.

  9. Re personal relations with staff – be genuine and friendly. They are people, too, and you’re not better than someone else because of your education, experience, or salary. I don’t make a point of saying hello or inquiring about personal life with my support staff because I feel I ought to – I do it because I like them and am curious about their families, etc, and it’s nice to get a little small talk in during the business of the day.

    At my last job, everyone worked odd/late hours, but afaik, I was the ONLY person who said hi to the custodial crew. We had some language barriers (they spoke mostly Spanish, I speak only English), but we’d laugh about the dying plants in my office area, and they’d see my artwork and ask if I’d made it. It killed me that no one else would talk to them.

    Like some of the other commenters here, I have struggled with figuring out what was appropriate work to ask the assistant to take on. She’s very nice and highly competent but supports 7 of us, plus she’s (I’m guessing) at least 30 years older than me, so it feels awkward to ask her to do me a favor. My approach is to give whatever task a try on my own – and if it seems to be taking more time than it’s worth (ie, reimbursement program keeps rejecting my request), I turf it to her. I also asked my boss if it was OK to have the assistant do certain tasks, and I watched to see what other colleagues asked her to do. Reading through the comments, it makes me appreciate my assistant (and overall work group) even more.

  10. On thing I disagree with – a good Assistant is not hard to come by. Wherever you live and work, there are wonderful, capable women – and men – looking for such a job. Today Everyone knows how to use the computer well – and the thing that used to be called “Typing Speed” is no longer an issue. The so-called “Assistant” is ought to be more knowledgeable about certain computer software programs than you are – typically Excel and other statistical programs. The only problem I have ever had with Assistants is with some who had so miss a lot of time from work because of their children’s activities and problems.

    • re Curious- sorry but it is more of a rarity than the norm in my experience. Both for skills and attitude. In 10 years working, one job I had great support staff who were friendly and pretty skilled. The other jobs have been the following:
      1- 4 support staff for 10 people-the support staff had high school level education and no interest in doing work of any kind. Could hardly blame them given low pay, but the last person they would lift a finger for was a young female attorney. when i aksed one to mail something for me once, they all burst out laughing and refused to do it. one other, who was a former jailbird, refused to do a task in front of the whole office, rudely. another of those 4 filed ‘hostile work environment’ lawsuits everytime they tried to write her up for literally not having worked in more than a decade. yes, that was in the government.
      2- at a small securities firm- one assistant. no education, very nice person, couldn’t do anything right.
      3- another government job- the good ones. not the highest level skills like a paralegal, but best i’ve ever seen. they could do admin stuff and messed up only sometimes, and could proof and format letters. far above anywhere else for me.
      4- current job as described a few posts up, large company, one shared admin for 14 people. does not get to my work ever, so functionally without any help. but acts rude/whiny every day when she actually shows up (always out sick or with personal crisis). says she will do stuff, but then never does, so my accounts have been delinquent, travel plans have been majorly boofed, etc. does not communicate at all unless forced, then forgets/misses stuff.

      I want to agree with you very much, and honestly don’t understand why the marketplace doesn’t hire better people, but maybe it has to do with the above poster who guesses the people who are better performers now go into different jobs. I agree, they are good jobs and it shouldn’t take that much to succeed, but sadly has not been my experience. Also not everyone knows how to work computers well. I had one who typed with one finger only for preference to be slow as far as we could tell thus not get tasked with anything. She’s the one who filed lawsuits constantly to keep herself protected.

    • Then why can’t I find them? We pay our legal secretaries $50-$70K, our paralegals $65K-90K, and we cannot find and keep competent people in either role. I have had countless interviews where people have stated flat out what work was beneath them (and I mean things like scanning), that they do not stay late, and they cannot format documents. We have two major national search firms working for us, and we almost never find someone who can last.

  11. re Curious- sorry but it is more of a rarity than the norm in my experience. Both for skills and attitude. In 10 years working, one job I had great support staff who were friendly and pretty skilled. The other jobs have been the following:
    1- 4 support staff for 10 people-the support staff had high school level education and no interest in doing work of any kind. Could hardly blame them given low pay, but the last person they would lift a finger for was a young female attorney. when i aksed one to mail something for me once, they all burst out laughing and refused to do it. one other, who was a former jailbird, refused to do a task in front of the whole office, rudely. another of those 4 filed ‘hostile work environment’ lawsuits everytime they tried to write her up for literally not having worked in more than a decade. yes, that was in the government.
    2- at a small securities firm- one assistant. no education, very nice person, couldn’t do anything right.
    3- another government job- the good ones. not the highest level skills like a paralegal, but best i’ve ever seen. they could do admin stuff and messed up only sometimes, and could proof and format letters. far above anywhere else for me.
    4- current job as described a few posts up, large company, one shared admin for 14 people. does not get to my work ever, so functionally without any help. but acts rude/whiny every day when she actually shows up (always out sick or with personal crisis). says she will do stuff, but then never does, so my accounts have been delinquent, travel plans have been majorly boofed, etc. does not communicate at all unless forced, then forgets/misses stuff.

    I want to agree with you very much, and honestly don’t understand why the marketplace doesn’t hire better people, but maybe it has to do with the above poster who guesses the people who are better performers now go into different jobs. I agree, they are good jobs and it shouldn’t take that much to succeed, but sadly has not been my experience. Also not everyone knows how to work computers well. I had one who typed with one finger only for preference to be slow as far as we could tell thus not get tasked with anything. She’s the one who filed lawsuits constantly to keep herself protected.

  12. anonymous :

    THreadjack:

    Two women I work closely with are pregnant – one just about to go on mat leave, and the other just announced (i.e. 3 months).

    This is totally embarrassing (but that’s what anonymity is for!) -but here we go: I do not have a flat stomach because well, i just don’t. Since my most recently pregnant colleague announced her condition, I *think* I have caught a few looks directly at my non-flat belly. I am not a paranoid person normally, but I feel really self conscious that naturally enough higher ups are wondering if I am next. I don’t wear overly tight clothes, by the way.

    So I am wondering what I can do to stop feeling self-conscious.

    Thanks gals.

    • You posted about a year ago, but Im going to respond to you anyway because I know exactly how that feels.

      I am a really tall woman with a thin build, but in college I put on a lot of weight (think 30+ lbs) and a lot of it went directly to my stomach. My arms and legs were still thin, and my breasts didnt really get much bigger, so I get the full onslaught of prego questions. I get doors held open for me, people even offer their seat up for me on the bus/train/light rail. Its really *really* embarrassing. When people ask me if Im pregnant, I usually just say “Nope, Im just fat” or “Nope, are you?” and then walk away if I can. It turns the embarrassment back on them. Sometimes when I answer with no, they ask if Im “sure”. Its mean and makes me feel ashamed, but I try to power through life and just keep going. I recently hired a personal trainer, who Im hoping to see twice a week to get back into shape.

      The best advice I can give you is to be honest with your bosses – go to them and tell them you know you have a bigger stomach, but its because you’re overweight, not pregnant. Tell them you’ve been getting a lot of looks lately and you want them to know you’re uncomfortable with it. Its best just to be honest and have people on your side than keep ignoring the problem, in my opinion.

  13. Anonymous :

    I’ve been an assistant in a small law office. (And the best day of my life was when I had said I was leaving and they offered me more money and I turned it down!) One of the nice younger attorneys told the assistants one day, after the boss had made one of us cry, that ‘an assistant works for the company, not for the lawyer’. That should probably be the guiding principal of assigning tasks to your assistant. Is it for the entity that pays their salary, or is it for the supervisor?

    Having trouble with work/life balance? Hire a part-time personal assistant (I did that job in college. If I know I’m getting paid to walk the dog, pick up dry cleaning and make babyfood, I’m fine. If I think I’m getting paid to support a lawyer and learn about my industry and I’m picking up dry cleaning, there’s a problem.)

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  15. THIS! Thanks Kat for re-posting this article. Im a realtor’s admin assistant and she treats me like a million different things: her friend, her dog, bad cop, good cop, the list goes on. One of the worst things she does is *watches* me work. She sits down in our shared office, turns her chair toward mine, and watches me. Sometimes for hours. 90% of the time Im doing things she should be doing, or at least helping with. Sometimes I’ll have her cell phone ringing and 2 other lines on hold, and she will still sit there and watch, instead of picking up the phone and helping. Does anyone have any insight on this? Since this article was posted last year, Im not sure anyone will still be around, but Id love to hear some feedback on this. Last time it happened, I waited until the phones stopped ringing and I looked at her and acted surprised that she was just sitting there, not doing a damn thing. I said something like ,”Oh, you’re just sitting there.” I think she needs me to delegate to HER.

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