The Lazy Secretary

How To Inspire a Lazy Secretary | CorporetteHow do you get a lazy secretary to work harder for you — or how do you complain about her to the Powers That Be without seeming petty? Reader E, a reader from New Zealand, has this very problem…

I share my secretary with my supervising partner, however he hardly uses her and often if she doesn’t have work to do for me she won’t do anything all day. She works part-time and has been a legal secretary for about 20 years.

She spends more time walking around the office talking to other staff than she does working. I dictate work for her to do that does not come back in a timely manner, instead she returns the dictated work just before she leaves (despite my requests for it throughout the day) so that if there are any changes to be made to work that needs to go out that day, I have to do it myself. Unfortunately, whilst everyone else in the office notices that she is lazy, my supervising partner either does not notice or doesn’t want to notice as he thinks that she is great.

Yesterday I asked her to do a simple task and as it was nearing the end of her working day she went over my head to my supervising partner and complained about doing it whilst I was in a meeting with a client, he told her that she didn’t have to do it and that it could wait till Monday! I can’t help but feel let down by him.

What should I do? I want to let him know how lazy she is but do not want to face a backlash from him.

We’ve talked before about delegating work to a secretary, but we haven’t talked about what to do with a bad secretary. This is a really, really tough question — I’ve been there and it is not a fun time. One of my favorite stories was from one of my friend’s secretaries, though: My friend handed a folder containing packets of neatly stapled papers (including a memo, legal decisions, web pages, and more) to her secretary and asks for 5 copies, original to A, copy to my friend, and the other 4 copies to B, C, D, and E. The secretary then went to the copy machine, removed all of the staples, and put the entire collection through the copier — which got jammed halfway through.  She then tried to “recreate” the collection of the packets that my friend had handed to her. Let’s just say that everyone (from A-E) had a good laugh about the work product they received.  (Yes, laughter: let’s hope it was that.)

To me, it’s a bit of a problem that the supervising attorney told her it could wait until Monday — you don’t say enough about the problem for me to get into it, but it sounds like either a) he already has a great relationship with his secretary (or even prefers her to you) in which case, complaining to him is going to get you nowhere, fast, b) he doesn’t think the work you’re giving her is important, in which case you might want to talk to him about it directly — not about how lazy the secretary is (because again, that will get you nowhere) but to understand whether 1) the work really is not that important, in which case, hey, enjoy your own weekend! or 2) this is the kind of work the firm expects you to do by yourself.  Either you have a secretary to do secretary’s work or you don’t.

That said… as I see it, you have a few options here.

  • Be very clear with your secretary. Instead of saying, “Please type this document as soon as possible,” say “I really need this document typed by 12:30.  Will that be a problem?”  This way, if what she gives you requires changes, you can ask her to do those by the end of the day.
  • Do the work yourself. Since my friend told me the story above, I’ll admit, my own response to a bad secretary has just been to do the work myself.  I’ve copied, typed, redlined, and more.
  • See what other options your company offers for support staff. For example, if you need something typed, red-lined, or grammar-checked, give it to the Steno Department rather than to your secretary. If you need something copied, give it to Duplicating instead of your secretary.
  • Move offices. Frequently secretaries are assigned based on where you sit; you could possibly get a new secretary by simply changing offices.  It isn’t a perfect world — you have to take the time to move your office — but I’ve known people  who’ve done this to get away from a bad secretary.
  • Talk to your secretary. I’ve had to do this once — one of my secretaries had a few weeks where absolutely nothing she did seemed to be right and, after a pretty large screw-up, I sat her down and tried to come from a place of concern — I’ve noticed your mind is elsewhere lately, and I wondered if I could ask if anything is going on outside of the office?  As it turned out, yes, a lot of stuff was going on in her home life with her children.  I expressed my concern and eased up on her for a while, and I felt like we came out of the incidences with a much stronger assistant/employer relationship.  In your situation, you might want to sit your secretary down — strive to understand her.  I’d make out a list of bullet points that you want to get across to her — for example, the reason that it isn’t acceptable for her to give you something as she runs out the door, or why her delay in Project A affected your work in X, Y, and Z ways.  Did she have other work that day that you’re not aware of?  Is it a communication problem — did she not understand that you needed it done in a certain way?  It can be difficult but as long as you come at it from a place of understanding (and not one of anger or blame) then I think it’s worth a shot — at least, before the next option, which is:
  • Talk to your boss about her. To me, this would be the last resort — particularly given the facts you cite above (they’ve been working together for a long time, he let her take off early on a Friday and absolved her of work you had given her, etc.)  I think you need to be really realistic about what is likely to happen, as well as what you want to happen.  For example: Do you want her fired?  There’s no guarantee the new one will be any better, and you’ll be known as the one at the office who gets secretaries fired.  Do you want a different secretary, say, X from down the hall?  Ask HR discreetly if you can change it up — say you get along so much better with her, you’ve heard amazing things about her, et cetera.

Readers, what is your advice to Reader E about bad assistants and lazy secretaries? How have you handled the situation in the past?


  1. I think your advice is excellent, Kat. Particularly setting the timing deadline ahead of time.

    I wonder, though, if it wouldn’t also help to mention the difficulties to HR (if this is a large office). Even though the Supervising Partner doesn’t have a problem with her, she’s employed by the whole firm, not just him. HR seems to be the appropriate place to go.

    • anonymous :

      Good advice, Kat, but Emma is correct that HR should be part of this, probably even before (or instead of) talking to the supervising partner.

    • Agree that the timing deadline is a great idea, but also agree this if for HR. Does the firm have a performance review process for secretaries? This is where it should be addressed. I had an issue with a legal secretary, and after writing the review, HR immediately stepped in.

      • Anonymous :

        I agree, but I also abide by the principle that one should NEVER learn of a performance issue for the first time during one’s review. If that happens, the supervisor/colleague doing the review has not done her job. If the issue is raised and there is no action to correct it, that is when it is appropriate to include in a formal review. This is what you would expect for yourself, and the principle should be applied similarly to your secretary.

  2. karenpadi :

    The lazy secretary is a tough one. I’ve told this story before, but I actually had a secretary file a formal complaint about me giving her work that was well within her job description. Long story short, she was reprimanded for not doing her job.

    After that incident, if I was working on a project that required a lot of support, I’d ask to use another secretary for that project. Luckily, it worked in that firm.

    I have a number of support people now (new firm, new staff structure). I’ve found that some are amazing and some, well, require additional hand-holding. I’ve been using the “follow-up” option in Outlook to track messages/tasks I’ve sent to the latter group.

  3. I had this situation shortly out of law school. My secretary was assigned both on the basis that she was my supervising partner’s secretary and we were located on the same corner. I think age and gender dynamics played a role in my situation, because I was young enough to be her daughter and my asking her to do something, literally resulted in her telling me that she’d show me how to do it myself. (When it comes to printing letters on letterhead and stuffing them in accompanying envelopes, I am pretty certain that falls under the role of secretary.) Anyway, I talked to the office manager. A bad secretary’s attitude towards me does not help me do the firm’s business. Her solution was to assign me to one of the best secretaries at the firm who happened to be on an entirely different floor than me. Her work was so wonderful and her demeanor so professional, that I never minded hauling up two flights of stairs through the course of the day to finalize items. A great secretary is worth his/her weight in gold. A bad one can make you want to find a job elsewhere.

  4. For now, keep a record of the things you’ve asked her to do. It’s easy enough if you email her the instructions. Then if something goes wrong, you won’t be left holding the bag.

  5. I have yet to have a secretary/admin who really wanted the job. I wish I had a better solution, but I ended up doing the work myself and no longer have a secretary. The secretary headcounts have all been eliminated due to attrition – I didn’t ever have to fire anyone, though in one case a really bad secretary was fired shortly after I left the company.

    • Makeup Junkie :

      I think it’s a dying profession, honestly. I have a secretary but it seems to me that I can do everything myself without taking the extra step of delegating.
      I don’t need a lot of scheduling though.

    • I will admit that it is hard to want to do all the crap jobs around the office, especially considering that no matter how important the task is, secretaries rarely get the credit for it (You need 35 copies of a 100 page powerpoint presentation printed in color by 6AM tomorrow morning, on your desk, bound and ready, or else you won’t be able to have a customer meeting that lands a $2M contract? Done!). Not all secretaries have this kind of situation where they work on high-pressure, tight-deadline items, but those who do it well still might not want to be secretaries.

      Secretarial jobs are often an in-between, but there are TONS of people out there who want the jobs even just for the time being, and there are still women (and men) who want to be secretaries for a living. The key is finding people who need to work and are willing to work hard. Regardless of whether secretarial work is their dream job, they’ll get it done.

  6. Client Service? :

    I find myself almost wishing that the thing your partner told your secretary could wait until Monday was a court filing that had to be filed Friday. Then you could always ask him, “Do you want to tell the client why we missed the filing deadline, or should I?”

  7. Anonymous :

    I feel for you. I am the only associate working for two partners. We have two secretaries. Both secretaries are incompetent to the point of malpractice issues but the partners REFUSE to fire them. I do my own work and document everything via e-mail to save myself because they will not hesitate to throw me under the bus. Needless to say, I am looking for a new job.

    • another anon :

      this is almost my exact situation – not quite to malpractice but when I don’t triple check things are WRONG. I feel your frustration.

  8. I have a secretary who’s sole job seems to be trying to find a lawyer to get married to. The whole time I am trying to work and give her stuff to help me, she is either on the internet looking for clothes, or else showing off her tight body to the young summer associates, who virtually eat it up!

    It does not surprise me to hear that she is out with these guys after work and probably is doing things that I would not do with these men.

    What answer is there for me to deal with this?

    • Does your company have a policy against inter-office dating? If so, maybe someone needs to remind her of it.

  9. I have a similar problem and found some of Kat’s techniques to work well, especially the specific deadlines. I’d welcome more advice on a bad attitude (rolling eyes when I approach and heavy sighs) and confronting/correcting in person (which I feel like is more direct) or via email (for paper trail/HR purposes).

  10. I wouldn’t assume secretaries have a “bad attitude” when they give you a heavy sigh or an eye roll. Put yourself in her position. Do you think she feels valued? Is she given crap projects to work on with very little positive feedback in return? Are you always dumping last minute stuff on her? I’m not sure how many of the people on this blog have worked in this kind of position before, but it’s a tough job. If you take your secretary for granted, she may not be that eager to help you out. I’m not saying you aren’t treating her well (obviously I don’t know, you could be the best manager in the world), but it is a possibility.

    • IMO — heavy sighs and eye rolls have no place in the workplace (or in relationships, for that matter). You have a problem? Discuss it like an adult and drop the passive-aggressive BS.

      If the secretary feels undervalued or poorly treated, then she needs to bring that up, either as part of the annual review process or directly with the attorneys she works for.

      • Makeup Junkie :

        As a former secretary I could not agree with this more. Work is work; we just have to do it. Eye rolling and sighing like a petulant teenager just makes everything worse.

        • I agree. There is no excuse for that behavior.

          I had this sort of issue with an older paralegal at my firm, who was always very condescending to junior and mid-level associates and would question our decisions and/or ask who authorize XYZ filing.

          One day I just told him in a professional way that I did not appreciate his attitude and that when I asked him to do something, he should just do it. I told him I understood that he had been at the firm longer than me, but that I was still an attorney and he was still a paralegal and thus not my superior.

          Things have been great ever since. We actually work very well together. Sometimes, with certain people, you do not get respect until you demand it.

      • Govt Attorney :

        I agree. We have an assistant here who is in charge of purchasing/travel. If you are a favorite, you may not have to wait long to get supplies or get reimbursed. If you aren’t, it could be months! We have attorneys around the state calling because they can’t get toner or their travel wasn’t approved and now they’ll have to get reimbursed. I ordered a toner, someone decided I didn’t need it as much as someone else, had it taken away, and waited two more months for another toner. Somehow the assistant refuses to reset my permissions on the large copier so that I can actually use it, so it’s a bad situation all around.

  11. Alanna of Trebond :

    On a similar vein, would any of you consider the caliber of the secretary/support staff in choosing a firm? I just finished two summer associate-ships and am now weighing two offers. At one firm, my secretary was a star — just incredibly helpful and always anticipating what I needed. At the other firm, the secretary I had last summer was incredibly nice, but I never ended up needing her for very much. The secretary this summer was rarely available and difficult to find when needed, but again, very nice. I had similar experiences with paralegals — probably because of the culture at the two firms — the first one made it much more expected that you would delegate certain work to support staff.

    • Yes and no. I don’t know how much stock to put in your second experience, for several reasons – unsure what sort of work you did as a SA that you’d need a secretary’s assistance on, maybe the secretary had big projects going on with his/her other attorneys, and unsure of what role the secretary plays overall at the second firm (word processing? court filings? maintain the attorney’s files? oversee other kinds of projects?). All that aside, I think I would consider as factors whether the support staff seem happy and whether there seems to be a lot of turnover.

    • Fashion Faux Pas :

      I had a different secretary as a summer associate than I had when I returned as an associate. My firm also shuffles secretaries around a fair amount due to workload and personal issues.

      • I’d only consider this if it was a general trend between the two firms. You most likely will end up with a different assistant when you start full time.

        Also, consider this in the context of the broader culture of the firm. Was one firm more laid-back and the other more high-stress? If so, try to figure out which one matches your personality better.

    • karenpadi :

      Yes. And I have. I moved from firm 1 to firm 2 in large part because I was unsatisfied with the support staff that Partner (who had two experienced secretaries of his own) thought “adequate” for 20+attorneys (while wondering why we couldn’t be more efficient). At firm 1, it was not unusual for me to only bill 4 hours each day before the support staff left at 5pm. I’d work every night from 10pm-2am to “keep up”.

      Firm 2: awesome secretary that I shared with two others. I was sad to leave her.

      Firm 3: support staffing did come up in my interview. This firm has a not-typical staffing structure. I will admit, after Firm 1, I was nervous. But our support staff have clearly defined roles, good attitudes, and are supervised by non-attorney professional managers. It works well.

    • Alanna of Trebond :

      Thanks for all of the comments! Mostly I used my secretary at the first firm to turn in my receipts, transcribe my billable hours, and to fix any travel problems I had — I obviously didn’t get a firm credit card for the summer, so I had to be reimbursed for all of my travel, which was a hassle. At the second firm, I really only needed my secretary when I lost my key to my office and how to figure out where to shred papers, but I just felt more lost without my first secretary. Obviously, I have no idea where I’ll sit when I return at either place, which would affect which secretary I have.

    • Support staff can make or break a young attorney. All else being more or less equal, I’d go with the great staff without hesitation. As a new attorney, I had a secretary who was so knowledgable and competent that she could take care of anything so long as it didn’t go into the realm of practicing law without a license, and on the other end of the spectrum,I had a situation where multiple members of the support staff actively undermined me at every turn, to the extent of jeopardizing cases. It’s the difference between heaven and hell. I acquired the great secretary when I fired my personal paralegal – the only one I could do anything about out of the rotten situation – without even checking to see if I was authorized to do so. I wouldn’t recommend this course of action, though it turned out wonderfully for me when I then had the services of the wonderful secretary, who verified that I was being sandbagged by the staff and came in at ten o’clock at night with me to pull from central filing every single file that was mine or for which I had responsibility and place them in locking filing cabinets that I brought in. Turned out the partners thought they kept hiring incompetents, and in fact it was the support staff who had undermined and run off/gotten fired the last two associates. If, like I was, you are in a small firm, you are probably either going to have to suck it up/do your own work to the extent possible or figure out just how much you can get away with in terms of creative solutions to make things better. Keep in mind, if in a small firm, that personalities are important, sometimes more so than “rank”. Figure out the relationships before making a move.

      • oops. Got interrupted and ended up addressing the post’s main issue at the end instead of yours, Alanna. Please disregard my error.

      • Alanna of Trebond :

        This is really helpful. Thanks!

  12. Research, not Law :

    I worked as a secretary while putting myself through school, and I agree with all of Kat’s advice, particularly the first and last point. Giving a clear deadline and having her confirm that she can or cannot (in which case, they should give you a clear deadline) complete the task by then can be beneficial for both of you. I also think it’s a good idea to discuss the issue with her directly. I agree with previous commenter’s that bringing HR into the loop is good – but only after you’ve talked with her first. No one should learn about such issues for the first time in a performance review.

    If you are tied to supervising partner and their secretary, and her work does not improve, then you may need to have a chat with him to find out why you two have such different expectations. I was an excellent secretary, but people who asked too much, set unrealistic deadlines, were a pain to deal with, or treated me in an inferior manner did not receive the same attention. I’ve also worked with terrible secretaries who were terrible no matter what, though too.

    • Lot of truth in your words there. I too worked as a secretary putting myself through my law degree. I am fed up with coming in to an unbelievable amount of dictation with a 4pm deadline that a bit of organisation in the days beforehand could have sorted out. I was developing arthritis in my wrists because of this. I don’t mind being terribly busy every so often but when it is relentless for two months and trying to fit my lawyers 6 day weeks into my 5 day week whilst getting no lunch is not on. Not a word of thanks either.

      I could write a book on the bad secretaries that I have worked with too. For example, the ones who did not think that they had to request their annual leave or explain the reason why they were out sick and they were just in the one firm.

  13. I agree with most of the above, but I’d add a caveat about going to HR. Just as an employee should not hear about performance issues for the first time in a formal review, I think it would be really bad for your boss to hear that you brought in HR without discussing the issue with him as well. Don’t know exactly how to approach it, but I think it is the right thing to do.

  14. Personally, I would ask the secretary to come to my office when she had a minute, close the door when she arrived, and have a sit-down beginning with “We need to talk about what happened Friday.” I’d ask her directly why she asked someone else whether she had to do my assignment and when she had to do it. Completely unacceptable. Doesn’t matter who it was that she asked. Then ask why she felt the need to do so – overwhelmed, perhaps? And how to avoid the problem in the future – communicating with me directly when she is freaking out; delegating to other support staff when she is overburdened. The right answer will never be to go to someone else to talk about changing deadlines for my work. Her job is to assist you, not hamper your efforts to get your work done or question your judgment to your supervisors.

    I wouldn’t go to HR first. If you keep working with her, it will just drive a wedge into your working relationship. If there are more problems down the road though, she has been given fair warning.

    • Cultivating a positive, mutually encouraging relationship with your secretary will reap many more rewards than sharply interrogating her as if she’s on the stand for your cross examination. The latter description applies to your suggestion. I’m a paralegal (an excellent one according to my bosses) at a top law firm. Frankly, if I had to work for someone like you, I’d look for another job. I have to run now, but I’ll post more of my thoughts in just a bit. Long story short- 1) Remember that support staff will be more supportive if you’re more supportive. 2) Consider how much you learned from people in positions of authority who took the time to teach you how to do things the right way. In case you haven’t noticed, you’re the one in the position of authority.

      • I actually see no issue in what anon above is saying. I’d have this sort if discussion too. Going over someone’s head to ask their boss whether the work could be postponed is not on. I’d be slammed if I asked my manager’s boss to let me off work that way.

        • If you’re on your third or fourth discussion, a threatening tone may be warranted. Yes, you may have one of the few bad apples. But being a hard-ass the first time means you won’t ever be able to go back and try to solve the problem by being kind and supportive. Also, directions that aren’t given are difficult to follow. You’ve heard the line before- when you assume, you make an ass of “u” and me. Be specific, give a deadline, and be nice.

          • uh – I’m not reading hard*ss in the OP comment. I think its possible to put that tone on it, but I think the OP was trying to get the basics of what should be covered, not a script. It doesn’t read as overly hostile to me.

  15. Not to go too far off-topic, but – is that tale about a copier jamming really such a damning offence for the secretary in question? To me it sounds a little bit unfortunate. Certainly if it’s the worst tale of incompetence you’ve heard, it doesn’t sound like the bad secretaries can be really as bad as all that.

    • Anne Shirley :

      I thought the issue was something along the lines of just sticking a bunch of receipts (typically irregularly sized) through the copy feeder, verses copying them one by one and keeping them neatly organized in the groups they were given in. Frankly the only point of my having a secretary is to do a good job of irritating nit-picky time consuming menial tasks- and I value her tremendously for doing such a good job with them.

  16. This is not a direct answer to the question, but I have found legal assistants to be a great answer to the lazy secretary issue. I work in a very large firm that hires students almost exclusively from top undergraduate schools who are interested in going into law. The type of motivation they have is truly on a different level then even the best secretaries with which I have worked. If you are willing to invest time into getting to know them, really explain what is going on in the deals/cases you are working on, answer all of their questions etc., I find that they can be very sweet about doing an “administrative task” when you are in a pinch.

  17. i would also try to stop using the word “whilst”

  18. Can I get some sympathetic first week on the job horror stories? My first week has been less than great and I’m really disappointed. (Current law clerk isn’t really teaching me anything. I had an internship with another judge where I did all of the clerk’s duties, so I know some about the substantive law/tasks. But I still need to know what this judge wants and the outgoing clerk isn’t teaching me.) But it’s just the first week and my clerkship will be awesome after I adjust, right?

    • Here’s hoping – I’ve been on the job less than two weeks, and one of my supervisors has already gone to all of my other supervisors and asked them to help me with my “inadequate” work product. *sigh*

      But NewClerk, I’ll put it in perspective – this is my third new job since law school (judicial clerk, Law Firm 1, Law Firm 2). Universally, the first four weeks are brutal, and then it starts to get better (and then sometimes it starts to get much, much worse – but that’s a different story). I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll both be OK in three weeks.

    • Former Clerk :

      Get as much information as you can during your overlap period and then, after the outgoing clerk leaves, ask the judge directly. It may be that there really isn’t much to tell. I never had more than a day of overlap with the outgoing clerks at my clerkships. Sometimes you just have to struggle through until you figure it out. It gets better, unless the judge is a jerk.

  19. Speaking of secretaries… It’s probably too late for this, and I may try reposting tomorrow, but can we have a discussion about what you use secretaries for?

    I just started my new job about 3 weeks ago, and I’ve got a secretary, and honestly, I rarely have anything for her to do. She’ll print and send my letters and copy exhibits for me, but that’s really about it. And right now I’m her only attorney (though we’re getting some more new people soon), so I feel kind of bad not utilizing her (ok, maybe she doesn’t care, but I still feel bad). A lot of the partners and some of the associates still dictate stuff, but I just can’t see myself ever having much need for dictation. Sure, I don’t type quite as fast as I talk, but I type pretty darn fast and can edit as I type instead of having to wait for the secretary to type it up, look over what she typed up, and then have her fix my mistakes. Does anyone else feel like this? What do you give your secretaries to do?

    • When I first started my job, I had very little for a secretary to do. Now, I have a lot more work in general, and there are many things that I used to do myself that I delegate. I don’t dictate anything and generally draft everything with a lot of legal substance myself, but my secretary writes letters from brief bullet-style notes or oral instructions, returns and makes phone calls that don’t involve legal advice (e.g. calls to remind clients about court dates, returns non-emergency calls to let them know I won’t be able to call back until Xday afternoon, etc.), drafts simple motions and orders, copies, scans, mails, files, etc.

    • We had a previous post and discussion about this — Kat links to it in the post above. Very helpful discussion. Try that first!

    • – Have her review your work after it’s typed. Even if you can type well and edit as you go, typos and errors still happen, and she may also be aware of style preferences for the company if she’s worked there longer.
      – Have her help you manage your calendar and take messages. It’s kind of a sucky thing, but it keeps people busy and will reduce your need to constantly be on the phone with people booking meetings.
      – If you have to have lunch meetings or dinners with people, have her look into available restaurants in the area for price points, food preferences, etc. It’s more of an enjoyable task and she’ll appreciate your valuing her opinions.

      She’ll probably have more work to do as the new attorneys come in, but make sure to thank her well for anything she does while it’s just the two of you, and even moreso afterwards. You might not need her now, but when your workload builds up, you probably will then.

    • If you’re typing a brief, just type the substance of it, let her do the case caption, format the headings correctly, signature line and certificate of mailing, and review for typos. I’m like you, in that I rarely dictate, but I still have the same amount of filing as anyone else. My secretary does all my filing, scanning, copying, letters (from my emails), finalizing briefs, putting exhibits together, scheduling depositions, discovery responses, etc. She also does some simple pleadings, like depo notices, on her own. But don’t feel like you have to keep her busy, I share a secretary with 2 other attorneys, yours will have plenty to do when the rest of the new people start.

    • Do you have appointments, go to depositions, or make court appearances? If so, have her prepare a daily schedule for you and have it waiting on your desk each morning. The out of office obligations should include the matter, name and contact info for your client, and the location of the obligation. If it is a deposition or something that is in a location unfamiliar to you, there should be a contact number and either an address, if you like to map things yourself on your phone, for example, or printed/written directions to the location attached to the agenda if you’d just as soon not be navigating as you go. Best case scenario, this agenda is sitting on top of a stack of the files that pertain to the matters. Yes, I know that all this info is in either your calendar or your files, but when I was in private practice and might be appearing in multiple courts in multiple counties, or heading from court to a depo, I found a daily agenda to be most helpful – sort of my one-piece-of-paper guide for the day.
      If your work at this point is “office stuff”, there are surely deadlines or target dates for your different projects. So long as you communicate the pertinent information, she can do a daily or weekly agenda to help you keep track of deadlines.

  20. Might I suggest outsourcing some of the secretarial work. For instance, you can send a document via email to a copy company or send dictation to a dictation company (or buy dictation software). It sounds like you are at a high enough level that you have some discretionary spending money, so I would just use it for that. I’m also sure it will probably be cheaper for the company…if you ever hit hard times you can say that you haven’t been using the secretary at all and have been getting her work done much faster and more efficiently for a fraction of the price.

    For the record, I was an administrative temp for years. Some companies hired me and I was REQUIRED to not do work outside my contract, which usually just said answering phones and scheduling conference rooms. A lot of places wanted me more as an office manager type. I think secretaries have mostly become office managers these days, who are definitely their weight in gold (and do way more than copying).

  21. I agree with all the points made but I would actually do your last resort point first; I would call a meeting with your partner (her supervisor) and go through with him all the examples where she hasn’t completed tasks, gone over your head, and where he has undermined you. For me, that would be the starting point because unless you have him on board, everything else will be pointless. If you can’t get his support, then the next step for me would be to talk to HR and see if they can mediate a meeting between you and your colleague, so that you are both singing from the same hymn sheet (as we say in the UK).

  22. Anonymous :

    My mother was a secretary, now retired. She’s had some truly horrid bosses, none of whom believed for a minute they were anything but wonderful.

    Just throwing that out there.

  23. no advice beyond do it yourself, but i sympathize. luckily my bad secretary just left our firm because she was about to get fired/found another job closer to home and quit.

    the worst thing she did was a few days before her last day. she shot me an email saying “Trisha from Elite called phone number xxx-xxx-xxxx” I had never heard of Trisha or Elite. I asked her, hey did Trisha say what is was about, I’m not familiar with her. She said “I duno, just call her back it’s important or something” I was confused and the phone number she sent me didn’t work (dead number). After a ton of deductive thinking and googling — turns out — PATRICIA FROM ELEANOR COURT REPORTING [NAME CHANGED] AND HER NUMBER WAS THE FULL NUMBER REVERSED. i shot said bad secretary an email back saying “oh it was patricia from eleanor court reporting.” i didn’t mention the wrong phone number, because why bother, she had already given notice. her reply was “oh, ooops!” Funny thing is, she never answers my phones for me normally. I would have definitely preferred this went to voice mail.

    Let me not even go into the time that she faxed a notice for a court conference to opposing counsel to the WRONG NUMBER (she used half of the chambers’ phone number and half of opposing counsel’s phone number) and they never received the notice. i spent 3 hours going back and forth to westchester that day for a conference with the judge, only to not have opposing counsel show up and have the conference cancelled. i only found out what caused the mix up when i dug through my files for the fax confirmation sheet.

  24. My bad secretary left a couple of months ago for another job, making quite a bit more money. I heard they fired her after less than a month, though, can’t say I’m surprised. On three separate occasions in the 2 years she worked for me, she sent things out without an address on the envelope – just the name. How can that even happen? One was a response to discovery requests, and could have been a real problem if the opposing counsel hadn’t been understanding. Once she was sending out several letters and got them in the wrong envelopes, including a client letter that went to opposing counsel. That was an interesting day. Even a simple transmittal letter would have several typos, and I never got anything corrected in one try, it always took at least 2 (normally I did the corrections myself, but sometimes I would give them to her, just so she could see how many mistakes she was making – didn’t do any good). The case captions and certificates of mailing on pleadings were frequently wrong (don’t ask me why, that’s just a copy paste task). She was not assigned to any partners, just associates, and every time I suggested letting her go, the managing partner said, oh no, she’s not bad, so and so is much worse. The associates she worked for let out a collective cheer when she gave notice. I guess I have no suggestions, nothing seemed to work with this secretary. I tried talking to her (she was very argumentative, and responded to any suggestions with long explanations of why it wasn’t her fault), giving her more specific instructions, everything I could think of. I think she felt underpaid and just resented the work. The sad thing was, she had good skills, and when she was paying attention, her work was good. The good news is her replacement is wonderful, and life at the office has improved significantly.

    • I had the exact same problems with an assistant once – I did mention her extreme lack of attention to detail when senior management asked me to give feedback for her performance review, but I just got tired of having to hand everything back to her to redo it and fix her mistakes. It was much easier to just stop asking her to do anything for me.

      I’ve often wondered if it had anything to do with resentment (i.e., did she resent supporting someone young enough to be her daughter?), because the other attorneys she supported never seemed to have any of those problems with her.

  25. My old director had the same two assistants for over ten years and to be honest in that period of time, he let things get really lax with them. They are both very nice people but come in late, take ridiculous vacation with next to no notice and regularly leave us in the lurch. Old director retired, new one came in a few months ago and I KNOW has been noticing this behaviour, she has even expressed frustration to me. She was going to give them three months to shape up before she laid down the law, I believe that will fall sometime next week. I am very excited.

  26. Anonymous :

    I am a paralegal (with a B.A. from a very good school, and a M.S. in an unrelated field.) I am not an idiot, and don’t feel like I am treated as one in my job. But, I do detect a lot of condescension/snobbery in some of these posts.

    Yes, I’m sure your jobs are more important, but maybe you should do a better job of making your support staff feel like their jobs are important.

  27. I went to law school so that I would never have to be a secretary again. (Long story, but my ex-husband and I had a small business together. For a lot of reasons, after the split I was stuck kicking around in secretarial and paralegal jobs before I had the bright idea of going to law school to better my life.)

    For a lot of women, the administrative assistant ghetto is where you end up when you’re bright but can’t get the kind of job or career that you want — whether running your own business, or an academic job with your master’s, or whatever. There is a lot of resentment in the ghetto, because it’s stupefying to type business correspondence or photocopy a pile of $150 lunch receipts when you’re bright enough to be your own boss but your cards haven’t fallen that way.

    This is by way of explanation, not excuse. I was a secretary with an attitude, and that’s not excusable. My explanation is that it made me crazy to work such a stultifying job to put food on the table for me and my daughter, and the pay was never too good. It was luck and a willingness to go into debt that made me a lawyer, but few secretaries have my luck, and the outlook for getting out of the admin pool ghetto is even bleaker than it was when I was there.

    What helped me not be a bad secretary was when my boss would give me discrete tasks and tell me when they had to be done. The more open-ended the assignment, and the less clear the deadline, the more bad attitude I would have for the work. On top of everything, any job where the boss assumed that I was stuck being a secretary because I was too stupid to do anything else, that was a huge button for me. Again, my problem, but still. Some very smart people end up in the secretarial ghetto because of they got dealt a lousy hand in life, and I would urge all the lawyers and executives here to remember that “there but for the grace of [insert deity name here]” go they.

  28. Secretary here! (Though not a legal one.)

    I lucked into my job, where I’m very happy. I have a college degree from a good school, my demeanor is pleasant, I am a competent writer and have enough of a design background to prepare promotional materials. I wanted a job which would support the unpaid work I do in the arts, a job I could put down at the end of the day. And it was only the fact the one particular senior person saw my resume that got me hired – the lower level staff were reluctant to hire me because of my degree and experience.

    If you want good secretarial help, hire cleverly and don’t be afraid of intelligent support staff. (I’ve definitely had encounters with senior people where they were obviously unpleasantly surprised that I was reading a “difficult” book – not during working hours! – or involved in a high-status local project.)

    And consider what challenging work you can build into the position – can you hire a secretary who will also manage web presence, prepare promotional material, track hours or expenses? A more challenging job will attract and retain better people. (I’ve gotten a good deal of web and design training on the job.) I’m surprised, frankly, that anyone has a secretary who simply makes copies and does reimbursements.

    My biggest frustrations as a secretary are being treated as if I’m stupid and have no ambition because I don’t make a lot of money and being asked to do things that take longer to explain and arrange than for the original askers to do them. I will gladly make any amount of copies, send faxes or order flowers – but if you’re standing next to the fax machine with one piece of paper in your hand and I’m on the other side of the building working on a process that’s tricky to interrupt, you should send the fax rather than calling me over to do it.

    • Oh, and one more thing…or maybe two: I have chosen to trade pay for time. I’m glad to work late or come in on a weekend sometimes – especially if I have a little warning – but my understanding is that my average workday is 8.5 hours. If I were staying significantly late all the time (ie, not just when a big project is going in or when I just need another twenty minutes to finish something), I would expect more money, a better title and more job security.

      And please remember that many secretaries take the bus. (I bike, but still.) If someone absolutely must make the last bus to her suburb/neighborhood, she should manage her work so that she can leave at that time – but you also should not expect to waylay her as she leaves with “just one more thing”. If you can’t figure out how to put the toner in the printer yourself, you need a workaround instead of forcing your secretary to stay and do it, thereby incurring a $30 cab ride on a $12/hour salary (as happened to a friend).

  29. I am a law graduate still working as a secretary (different and longer method of qualification in Ireland) but goodness lawyers over here a a hoot. Honestly, they have me typing dictation when I could be drafting and fee earning doing paralegal tasks. I actually had my probation period extended on the basis that I was too smart to do my job! Why hire me then especially when I told you about my degrees.

    I have worked for some wonderful lawyers in my time who cared about making sure that their secretary had some meaningful work to do but there have been a few rotters. My current position makes me laugh as they are thinking of doing an upgrad in IT to a systems which I have prior experience of but no one is yet to ask me anything about it. Instead they are relying on a secretary who has no experience of it. Foolish if you are going to spend the money.

    I do like being given deadlines for my work and often ask if not given any but that is just good communication. I work hard for my fee earner and the clients who I have a lot of contact with but cannot help but think that lawyers, especially those in small firms, could recoginise their limits regarding management and either delegate or ask for advice instead of making constant ill-advised stabs in the dark.

    Great website. Now if only we had Banana Republic in Ireland for office wear.

  30. Rather than a “lazy secretary,” the situation sounds political to me, as though the secretary is hostile toward the writer, resents having to work for her or him or doesn’t feel that she is obligated to do so. The writer’s associate certainly doesn’t help the situation by telling the secretary that she does not have to complete the assigned work as instructed! I’ve seen this type of scenario played out numerous times when the secretary, who is a woman, is assigned to work for another woman or the more senior manager wishes to pull rank on the more junior manager and enlists the aid of the secretary, or the secretary has political leverage of her own and enjoys using it.

    My advice to the writer is to speak with the secretary, try to connect with her in a positive way and assess both his/her and the secretary’s relationships with the supervising partner, and speak with the supervising partner, if prudent, to discuss the secretary’s responsibilities. But tread lightly and carefully. If nothing works, take the advice of other commenters and try to arrange for another secretary to be assigned to you, even if it’s another part-timer. The bottom line is if a secretary or any other direct report is insubordinate — and it sounds like this secretary is or at least is walking a fine line — there are steps to be taken and it’s advisable to keep a log for evidence. However, that said, sometimes going up against a team like the writer’s associate and the secretary – especially if HR is not supportive and often it isn’t in such cases — can result in job loss or a hit to one’s career. Weigh whether it’s worth it. Politics always rule, so pick your battles. Sometimes the best thing is to just keep trying to make the best of a bad situation until it changes. And, it often does.

  31. Secretary and Proud :

    The reasons most of you are having problems with your secretary is not because the secretary is bad, it’s because you’re a bunch of snobby bitches you think you’re better than anyone else simply because you have a law degree. You look down your nose at other women who aren’t exactly like you, just like you mean girls probably did back in middle school! All of you make me sick! I’ve been in secretarial jobs of various kinds (and there are MANY despite the fancy titles) for over 30 years, and I can assure you I am not “lazy.” In fact, I and my peers probably work harder than most of you ambulance chasers! Get over yourselves. A secretary is a professional just like you. Treat her (or him) with respect and you’ll have no problems.