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Executive assistants in law firms

Too many senior lawyers are ignoring a key relationship, writes Martin Dineen.

Look at any high profile, successful lawyer and working alongside them you will most likely find a long-serving, highly talented executive assistant.

A professional, personal or executive assistant plays a crucial role in managing their profile and their practice. They know how costly an important missed client message, or poorly-planned schedule can be. They are often the first interface with clients, a trusted conduit to assure them that matters are in hand or that a message will get through with urgency.

Yet our research shows too many lawyers still put little energy into making the partnership work.

The average tenure for a mid-level PA at a law firm is only about two and a half years. Even the most senior PA’s only stick around for a little over five years, and their reasons for leaving are telling.

While career progression is important for junior PAs (under two years' experience), over a quarter of intermediate PAs cite ‘culture’ as their primary reason for moving jobs within law firms. This suggests that cultural fit might make the difference between a high and low turnover of executive assistants.

So what are partners, lawyers and firms missing out on with this constant turnover of PAs?

The most important advantage of having a longer tenure EA or PA is the accumulation of trust. With time, a partner or senior lawyer becomes more comfortable handing over additional tasks, with certainty that they will be handled professionally on their behalf, freeing up valuable time. In turn, the EA feels respected, gets to undertake more challenging work and is engaged.

Investing in this relationship, so that it works for everyone, begins with the selection process. Many firms dedicate considerable care in selecting their graduate trainees, but have minimal process when it comes to executive assistant recruitment. And more focus needs to be put on cultural fit, rather than just experience.

A current and accurate job description, outlining tasks involved and time likely spent on each is important for transparency. A tailored behavioural interview guide is recommended to ensure that all competencies are assessed and any need for development or acceptance is considered. It is also proposed that peers are invited to participate in the interview process to provide candidates with a complete understanding of the role, firm and person they are considering. Peers can also provide the partner or lawyer with a differing point of view on the candidate.

It is important to remember that not all EAs are suited to the legal sector. There is a need to accept that building a successful working relationship takes time, respect and an understanding of the client pressure a partner or lawyer may be under. A realistic understanding of the likelihood of promotion is also important.

So how can firms and partners keep their EAs longer?

First of all, there are the simple things that most employees want, whatever the role or position. An open, friendly and social workplace with the opportunity to advance or grow organically within an existing role.

Keeping a quality EA happy and engaged to work efficiently is similar to doing so for a junior lawyer. Offering training opportunities, which includes coaching and mentoring, is a really positive way of keeping talented employees interested.

However, it is possible to go further.

Secondments need not only be for lawyers. For the right EA a secondment in to different areas of law, with different partners, or even with clients could be highly beneficial to the EA and to the firm.

Some EAs also have ambitions to advance their career in the law, so supporting and encouraging this can create great benefits for both parties in to the future.

It all comes back to creating an inclusive environment of respect. No matter what the culture, conservative or progressive, getting rid of outdated ideas or preconceptions and treating EA’s as professional business partners will allow you to gain real value from their input.

Remember the name of 15-year-old legal secretary Susan Kiefel – or Justice Kiefel as she’s now referred to on the Federal Court bench?

Martin Dineen is the founder and director of MJD Executive - a recruitment agency specialising in EA recruitment for senior executives and professionals.

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