2019 Update: We still stand by this discussion on how to avoid being mistaken for a personal assistant — but you may also want to check out our more recent discussion on how to avoid office housekeeping tasks.
How do you tell your boss you’re not her servant / personal assistant / chauffeur / secretary — when you are instead a junior associate? Is there a way to have that conversation without burning your bridges? Are you possibly even overlooking a great career opportunity? Reader S has a great question:
How do you professionally handle being treated like your supervisor’s secretary or admin–when you are not? I am a junior associate, and the partner that I typically work for frequently asks me to do things like get lunch, make copies, drive her to far away meetings, etc. (Note: the male associate I work with is NEVER asked to do these things). I know that as a junior associate I need to be willing to go the extra mile, but when is enough enough? And how do I let her know without sounding lazy?
Oooof, I’m sorry to hear that, Reader S. I think you’re probably right that she’s treating you unfairly as a woman — still, as a general caveat, I will note at the outset that there’s a chance that some of this stuff may actually be part of your job, or may be a miscommunication.
For example, maybe you heard “make copies,” suggesting to you that you stand over the copier for hours — when really she meant “have copies made,” as in, take the binder to the Duplicating department, fill out the order sheet, and check the 12 binders that come back to you for accuracy and completeness (or supervise the paralegal who does that).
As any lawyer will tell you, legal work is not glamorous and sometimes feels like it has as much to do with formatting as it does actual law. STILL, with that caveat out of the way, it does sound like you’re getting the raw end of the deal.
Here are my best tips to stop your boss from treating you like a personal assistant — but I can’t wait to hear what advice the readers have for you.
- Ask your boss for help prioritizing. “Gee I’d love to make that lunch run for you but I told Partner X I’d get him this brief by tonight — which do you think is more important?”
- Ask if you can bill it. If it’s unclear at all whether you can bill something, ask. “Drive you to that meeting 60 minutes away? Absolutely. Which client code do I use again?” If she has a legitimate reason to have you drive her to the meeting — such as so you can attend the meeting, take notes, follow up on action items, strategize in the car/on the way back — then there should be no reason you can’t bill it.
- Delegate to your male colleagues or the actual admin. “Great, I’ve got that lunch order written here — I’ll just go ask YOUR SECRETARY to pick it up.”
- Get away. If there are other partners to work for in your field of interest, at your firm, start working for them, even if it means taking on more work in the short run. Stop taking new projects with the partner. Do EXCELLENT work on everything you finish for her, and keep records of everything, including any praise you got from clients or from the partner.
- Talk to someone. This is my fifth suggestion here because I don’t think it would do a lot of good, but it may give you perspective.
- You could talk to the partner herself. Is she aware she’s treating you in a sexist way? Would she please stop? You may get an answer like “this is what I had to do, and look at where I am now!” (There’s been a ton written about how some older women executives — particularly those who had to prove themselves in male-dominated industries — have a tendency to be harsher on younger women, “pull the ladder up behind them,” and otherwise try to actively keep other women down as a way to distinguish themselves. See, for example, this article in The Atlantic, this article in Time, and this article in Forbes. If you’re dealing with one of those people, you just need to remove yourself, very carefully, from her orbit.)
- You could talk to HR, and tell them she’s being sexist and discriminatory… I doubt things would change and you’d have effectively poured gasoline on the bridge before you threw a lit match behind you.
- If you can hold on, wait until your performance review comes up and see if you can direct the conversation towards these kinds of tasks. “I’d love to do more legal writing and research but so much of my time was taken up driving Partner Y around! How should I seek out those opportunities instead?”
- If you were to talk to anyone I might suggest looking for “the old you” and talking to her (because it’s inevitably going to be a her). Who worked with the partner before you did? Is she still at your firm or did she have to leave to get ahead? Has she found the partner to be a good ally now that she’s left, or did the partner drop her like a hot potato once she left? (I don’t suggest trying to work with her because she may have the same attitude as your partner — but it might help you to talk to her and especially to see her career path.)
Whatever you do, it’s probably a good idea to start keeping a written record of these little favors/requests/commands. Record what she asks you to do, your response, her response. Print out emails. Try to put as much as possible into writing (“Is now a good time to swing by with the coffees you asked for and that memo?”).
Ladies, what’s your best advice? Have you ever been in a situation where your boss treats you like a personal assistant — or seen it happen to one of your friends?
Original photo image (2016). Updated images (2018) via Stencil.
There’s really only one answer here: get work from other partners, develop a good relationship with them and have them manage her, and eventually transition away from working with her completely. If that’s not an option for whatever reason, I’d start job hunting.
I really wouldn’t do what Kat suggested and say “Gee I’d love to make that lunch run for you but I told Partner X I’d get him this brief by tonight — which do you think is more important?” That sounds incredibly sarcastic. Even if you say it less sarcastically and seem like you’re genuinely asking for guidance on how to prioritize tasks, it’s really better to just stay out of it and have Partner X tell her “S can’t do XYZ for you because she owes me a brief.”
I agree, this is a ridiculous suggestion. “Which do you think is more important, a brief or your lunch?” Come on. Also, BTW, you’re a BigLaw associate — you’re supposed to be able to do both. Work better/faster/harder and do everything you’re asked in the amount of time you’re given. The concept of prioritizing tasks or moving X to the back burner so you can finish Y does not matter to the partners you work for–you do whatever it takes to finish X and Y in the time allotted. If you can’t, well, maybe you’re not cut out for this gig.
Also, is this really a problem that actual people have? A BigLaw partner asking you to pick up their LUNCH? I’ve been asked to do stupid tasks, for sure, but typically they’re at least client-billable, i.e. can you print out this case from Lexis for me?
anon former big law
Actually, I suspect that billing your time will shut this down pretty quickly. The partner is not going to want to deal with client pushback on the increased bill or explain why the charges for busy work. And if she is smart, she will want you to bill as much legitimate time as you can so as to increase her own profits, not waste time on non billable stuff.
Maybe the person doesn’t know they’re only asking you vs. asking others/maybe the others aren’t being asked for non-gender related reasons… what about asking for a moment of the person’s time and saying something as simple as, “I’ve noticed you often ask me to run errands but that ____name____ is typically not asked. I’m wondering if I’m not doing something in the office the way you prefer so you are giving me alternative tasks. I really want to learn and become great at ___tasks____ so I hope you don’t mind me asking for feedback.”
This way, if you’re being given busy work because the other person (who happens to be a guy) is better, you can become better. If you’re being accidentally seen as being able to handle “women’s work” then you’ve pointed it out in a non-threatening way. If you’re given more because they think you can handle more, you are also made aware and you can clarify that you appreciate their faith in you and wonder if your time would be better spent in the office learning x tasks or from another person so you can further the work you were hired for.
(Not a Lawyer, so maybe this is horribly out of touch, but I always figure it better to assume it’s a mistake than to assume someone’s a s3xist jerk until I find out for sure!)
What would be your ideal office environment, both for your own workspace and for the office in general?
It is where I could RELY on my assistant to do thing’s, not just for the manageing partner but for me too. Right now, I do my own typeing, and then rely on her to spell check. She is NOT that interested in doeing my work. FOOEY!
I also would like for the manageing partner to stick up for me more when Frank says dirty things and puts his hands where they do NOT belong. That is simpley harassement, but I make good money and do NOT want to leave here, but realy thought the manageing partner would yell at him. He does NOT b/c Frank keeps the books and as a result, we all pay alot less taxe’s! YAY!!!!
Do not bring this up in a performance review. Do not ask why other people aren’t asked. I assume they’re not asked because they push back.
Bill all this in a suspense file–yours (or hers if you’re feeling mean), or to the firm’s unbillable file, so you have a hard number on the stupid stuff you’re doing. Associates are supposed to make $, and if you’re not generating revenue because you’re doign support staff stuff, it’s a business issue. lawyers are bad managers, but they do like getting paid.
Get away from her in proximity if your offices are close by–work in a conference room or something, preferably on another floor (this type doesn’t normally climb stairs).
Tell her you have a “fire drill” that absolutely needs done, and can’t do coffee/driving/etc. No suggestions or explanations, just “I’m sorry, this must get out the door today, and I’m in a pinch.”
If you get email requests from her, forward them to your actual assistant or HER actual assistant to do whatever task she’s wanting. Call a “runner” to drive her places.
“(this type doesn’t normally climb stairs)” —> This is SO true. I was just remembering my (horrible) days working in a huge law firm and how I would routinely take the stairs just to get some movement and minimal exercise into my day. It wasn’t anything crazy, probably less than 4 floors. On more than one occasion a partner realized I had taken the stairs and was flabbergasted and asked me why I would ever do such a thing.
Agree w/ the suggestions to forward the tasks to someone at a more appropriate level to handle them. The partner is busy and frantic and just needs X handled/done. They don’t particularly care if YOU do it–you just arrange to make it happen. You don’t have to pick up the lunch — ask the assistant to call the delivery guy.
Counterpoint: I work for one of these partners. I started out basically as her “bag girl” and years later, literally am her right-hand person in all respects, both stupid stuff like making sure she eats and occasionally driving her places (which I bill) and making sure she has all the papers she needs and prepping her for client meetings and drafting briefs. She’s an amazing, tough, very busy, very successful partner and she does not have time to delegate X to this person and Y to that person and Z to me. I have become her one stop shop.
She needs copies? I manage her secretary, the copy department, the paralegal, and QC it all myself to make sure it’s perfect. And I bill it.
She needs lunch? I manage her secretary or order her lunch and bring it to her. Because she bills at $1k an hour and she’s got back to back to back client calls and she does not have time to eat, but she’s hungry and needs to. And I want her to be healthy and focused and to do a good job for her clients, which are also the cases I work on. I bring protein bars to the trials and depos I second chair and make her eat them.
She needs transportation? I again work with her secretary and order her an uber or a cab, or sometimes I drive her myself, where we talk about the case and/or my career development. And I bill it as appropriate. Those car rides are precious because they are either time she is focused on ME or time she can use to prepare for the meeting she is going to. And she’s grateful that I handle it for her instead of forcing her to worry about stuff that does not need her $1k/hour brain.
I provide her a one-stop shop for the things she needs to do her job, and in return, I have earned a place on most of her cases, her trust, and her support as I advance in my career. I have absolutely been “no job too small” with her since day one.
She has never asked a male associate to do these things. I don’t know if she just never felt comfortable with asking any of them, or maybe she did once and she got attitude about it because men think such things are beneath them. I don’t know and I don’t care. This is a gift.
(Former) Clueless Summer
delegate where possible but use the driving to the far away meetings to become her right hand person
Yes, this is an awesome situation to have, to be a “go to” girl, as long as there’s some benefits to you. And I would push back that secretary shouldn’t regularly need another attorney to point out that her assigned attorney needs normal admin-y things (copies, transportation, a binder prepped, etc).
Happy to do favors for a partner who gives me a lot of work and provide the support for serving our clients, but it’s doing no one any good to have the revenue centers become the cost centers.
The binders are more like “give me all the documents you think are relevant for preparing the client for deposition” or “all the cases I need to understand their brief” and instead of her directly sending the files to her secretary, who then would naturally have follow up questions and take up the partner’s time, I work with her secretary to answer those questions and get her what she needs when she needs it how she needs it, so the partner doesn’t have to deal with anyone but me for that task.
Her secretary is also amazing and is managing all of her travel, her docketing, her expenses, her timesheets, her files, her bills, etc. You’d have to be talented to be supporting a partner like this one. But her secretary can only support what she knows about, and travel/meeting plans can change, so I help her assistant stay on top of things.
And yep, I expect that she will support my partnership application when it’s time. We’ve talked about it on those car rides.
And when you’re up for partnership vote, odds are she’ll be the person in the room making your case.
OP, it’s up to you to figure out what the balance is and if this partner is taking advantage of you or taking you under her wing. No one knows the relationship better than you do.
Sounds a bit like Huma Abedin for Hillary Clinton
I say this as a secretary – you sound like a gem. I would get to earn a nice salary (you would be surprised how much we make) and work for a prominent partner, while not having to actually deal with her or figure out what she wants/needs! Win!
Great example of this would be Huma Abedin.
Or Jon Snow as steward for the Lord Commander, in Game of Thrones world.
It would be interesting to hear Ellen’s perspective, given her unusual work environment and her relationship with her managing partner.
+1 – I don’t know of any firm that wants their associates to be standing at the copier – is it possible that you are misunderstanding a request to manage the administrative stuff, not actually do it? I think this kind of development is actually typical in law firms. (I remember being very puzzled as a first year why the partner would give *me* things for me to give to my secretary to do, when he had a secretary of his own. the reason is that he wanted the secretary’s questions and supervision coming from me, and for him to not have to worry about it. But I had to have a senior associate explain that to me).
Appreciate the access and the opportunity – don’t screw up the little things, and make sure you aren’t getting left out of the more substantive opportunities because you are being tied down with minutia. If you can become a “pivot point” – the person she can delegate things more easily to – you’ll start to reap the benefits of that relationship. Two important things to watch out for: (1) Are you missing bigger opportunities? If you’re *consistently* out of the room arranging lunch details with her secretary while other associates at your same level are still in the room getting more substantive work, that could be a problem. (2) Is this a star you want your wagon hitched to? How important / connected is this partner? Does she have important clients? Is she a rainmaker who can keep you well supplied with billable hours? If you’re going to invest in the relationship, you want make sure that it is mutually beneficial. Keep in mind that you are responsible for your own development (that truth is easily forgotten in biglaw) so if this partner isn’t going to take you where you want to go, start tryin to get more work from a different partner(s) if possible
100% agree on billing for drive time. I completely disagree w/ Kat’s suggestion that you ASK the partner if you should bill it. You should minimize the amount of times you ask your boss for things or to think about YOUR issues, as a general rule. Also, you should bill whatever is reasonable, and let the partner write it off, again as a general rule.
Furthermore, you wouldn’t bill it as “Drive Jane Smith to client meeting.” You would talk to the partner in the car about the case (to the extent they weren’t busy otherwise) and bill it as, “Confer and strategize with Jane Smith regarding issues for client; prepare for meeting with client; travel to meeting with client.”
This is seriously sad and all kinds of wrong. These are, by the way, exactly the type of partners who “forget” to stick up for you at the elevation meeting. You didn’t go to law school to be a professional door mat.
(Former) Clueless Summer
You may be misinterpreting these requests – as Kat said, make copies can mean get copies made, get lunch can mean organize lunch for the meeting, etc. Driving her to a meeting – less so, but I’ve certainly been asked to rent the car, drive and pick up the partner when going out of town. It reduces their stress before a big hearing and that way they can prep in the car. But I bill because we are both going to the hearing…
It may be partner’s assistant is not good or too busy and she wants you to use your own assistant. It would surprise me that any partner would get someone who could be billing to do non-billable tasks…that just doesn’t make sense from a profits perspective. Sometimes as you get more senior, the amount of delegation and supervision you do can seem overwhelming – I increasingly funnel everything through my assistant, because it’s easier to check in and supervise one person, rather than sending an email to the document department to get X done, or stopping by the copy room myself and then having to check back in.
All sorts of no. I didn’t get a degree to be an assistant, neither did you. You are educated and skilled and experienced, you go to work to do substantive things. I’d personally set firm boundaries while job hunting. This sort of behavior never subsides and the only solution is getting out.
Hmmm what I find interesting is how many people are telling you to turn this into an opportunity and become her right hand person. Men never have to do the scut work in order to make it big.
Just another example of how men get judged and promoted based on potential while women have to jump through hoops and professional hazing in order to get assessed on past performance.
I don’t have an answer except, down with the patriarchy.
Um yes they do. I see it all the time. They look at it as an opportunity for face time and to “be in the room” when major decisions are made and strategy discussions are happening.
Idk, I’ve seen a lot of men get hazed at work.
They sure do. What about Reggie Love?
Honestly, how would this question be framed if it was the male associate being asked to be a chauffeur? Would the female associate think, oh good, my time isn’t being wasted behind the wheel of the car. Or would the question then be, “It’s so unfair, every time Partner X has to go to a big meeting, he gets my MALE colleague to drive him there. John gets tons of face time with the partner and gets to meet the clients, while I’m stuck in the office researching legal issues! Is it because he thinks women aren’t good at driving?” So much of what causes offense at work depends on your perspective.
I was a Huma
It was great until I went on maternity leave. When I got back I no longer had the (female) partner’s trust. So now I work elsewhere. Oddly, at my new job I get new responsibilities that make me increasingly visible across the organization without being the assistant directing the assistant. Funny.