Singled Out For Changes

Question:

I work in Massachusetts in a large law firm (employee at will) and have been there for quite a while (over ten years). Most of the secretaries work for 2 attorneys some 3 attorneys. In the past few years whenever there is a change on the floor, I am involved in it, even if it doesn’t involve any of the attorneys I work with.

There are three “groups” on the floor: Personal Injury (the group I work with); Workers Compensation; and, Corporate Law. Up until three years ago I worked for two attorneys, Caroline and Albert. Caroline left a few years ago and since then I have been reassigned to different attorneys over and over again.

About three months after Caroline left, a new attorney (Linda) was hired to replace Caroline, and I worked for her. After about three or four months Linda was taken from me and reassiged to another secretary. I was told that a partner wanted Linda to work with a secretary who was in the Workers Compensation group, as Linda did a lot of work concerning workers compensation.(I found this hard to believe but that is what I was told.) Also, as note, there were a few secretaries at the time who worked for attorneys from two different groups.

I had to wait about 8-9 months to be assigned a second attorney. All during these 8-9 months the firm was hiring attorneys who were being assigned to different secretaries. I was still working for Albert during this time. After about 8-9 months they hired Bill to replace Linda and I was to be his secretary, which was fine with me.

Shortly after that I was given a third attorney, Richard. (I was not happy about this, mostly because there was no salary increase; my last salary raise netted my take-home pay only $8 more than before my raise (we get paid bi-weekly) and I had no idea if I could handle Bill’s workload as Bill was new and there was no way of telling how heavy his workload would be. (I thought it was a little too much too soon.)

About 3 months later, Bill was taken away from me and given to Sally. One of Sally’s attorneys had just left, so that left her working for one attorney. At the same time another attorney (Ed) was given to me because his original secretary, Bridget, did not like him and made so much fuss that it was decided I should get Ed (that was the reason, I believe, Bill was given to Sally in the first place– so they could give me Ed.) Sally had told me in the past that she would not want to work for Ed, either, which I sure she probably relayed to her boss, Carle — who is very involved in deciding which secretary will be working for an attorney. I’m sure he would want to keep his own secretary Sally, happy.

It would have made sense to give Ed to Sally in the first place, as her attorney had just left and she was left working for one attorney. Rumor has it that Bridget told her boss, James, (Senior partner) that I should be the one to get Ed. Bridget likes Sally, so she wouldn’t want to suggest to James that Sally should be assigned to work with Ed. Bridget knows Sally would probably be angry with her. Now,I just found out that my third attorney, Ed, is being taken away from me. I have been told by HR that another attorney who works in Corporate Law is leaving and the Corporate Law partners would rather have Ed assigned to a secretary in their group, so they are assigning him to a secretary in Corporate Law. (This reason is wearing a little thin, I think)

The main reason I mind that Ed is being taken away from me is that I will probably be assigned still another attorney, again. I don’t know why the secretary whose attorney just left didn’t have to wait until they hired another attorney instead of taking Ed away from me. I had to wait months for a second attorney.

This is really getting to me. I have let HR know that it is very stressful and very unfair. There are about 12 other secretaries on the floor, but I’m the only one these changes are happening to. I asked for a raise when they assigned the third attorney to me. I was told by HR that if a probabationary period of three months of working for the three attorneys, she would ask the managing partner about the raise. I didn’t get a raise, however, I got what they call a “salary adjustment”, which I believe is because I was being underpaid.

My review is in a few weeks and I’m wondering if this is a reason for taking Ed from me. This will be Ed’s 3 secretary in 6-7 months. He said he is beginning to feel like a ping pong ball. I said I know what he means, and I’m not very happy with it. Do you think my employer wants me to go elsewhere? HR has told me there have been no complaints about my work, I’m never late or out sick. I’m in my late 50s and hope to retire in about seven years. Do you think this is unfair treatment. Any ideas what is going on?

Signed,

Wants Stability


Answer:

Dear Wants Stability:

Office organizing and re-organizing such as you describe, CAN be very unsettling. Or more to the point, it’s hard to EVER feel settled!

While I don’t know what is going on behind the scenes, I can share some thoughts you might be able to use to make some decisions.

1. The biggest decision you will need to make is to decide if things are so bad you want to quit and go elsewhere. It doesn’t sound as though that is the case. You seem to be able to do the work required, and you are not under extreme mental stress about it–it’s just that you get a new boss every few months–and your workload varies according to how many attorneys you are working with. That is not only frustrating and stressful, but makes you feel less valuable than if you worked with the same attorneys for an longer amount of time.

You want to work another seven years. If you think you can find an equal or better job elsewhere, you may want to do that. If not, you may want to simply smile and learn to say hello and goodbye to attorneys–using some of the thoughts listed below. Keep in mind that the attorneys likely feel as unsettled, if not more so, as you do. I’ve been told that is one of the dues new attorneys must pay–they are used strictly as the higher echelon thinks best, to increase the strength and revenue of the firm.

2. HR has said there have been no complaints about your work. But have there been any compliments about it? In addition to the HR person saying there have been no complaints, did they strongly talk about how valuable you are, how much you contribute, and why they don’t want you to feel diminished by the work changes? Have the attorneys with which you worked ever written a sincere and specifically commendatory note about you and your work? Not just a general thank you, but something that points to your value to them and the team? All of that would tell you a lot about how you are seen by others.

Do you feel you are establishing a strong working relationship with the attorneys you work with, so they might at least remember you later on, when they have a chance to choose their secretaries, or when they can express thoughts about your work? Are you viewed as someone who is so valuable that the organizational decision-makers would not want to upset you or lose you–so they might speak up on your behalf? You know best what kind of daily and routine interactions you have with those in the organization at all levels. But clearly there is a difference between someone with influence, and someone who is a valued employee, but who does not have the ability to influence work very much; and someone who is not a valued employee at all.

3. It sounds as though your office managers and decision makers feel one of three ways: 1. You are so good and so adaptable, they can trust you to work through the changes, maybe more than they trust others to do so. 2. You are able to do the work and are being paid what you originally agreed was fair, to do the work; with a recent adjustment–and they see all of this as routine office reorganization to which you should not object. 3. They don’t have a reason to fire you, but if you get frustrated and quit, they wouldn’t mind, so they purposely put pressure on you.

That sounds harsh! And, likely the correct reasoning is #1 or #2. Here’s why I think it’s #2, as nice as #1 sounds: If you were being given the new or different attorneys because they trust you to be able to handle it, they would have talked to you about it and explained their reasoning–especially when you expressed your feelings about it.

Since they haven’t done that, it may be the thought of the office manager is that a law office secretary is essentially in a secretarial pool and expected to do the work that is given to her, no matter who gives it to her. In those settings, attorneys are neither given to secretaries nor taken away from them. Attorneys are simply assigned secretaries to help them with their work. Since many attorneys are always actively building their own careers, who that secretary is doesn’t matter to them unless there is a serious problem. You have likely seen that as attorneys have come and gone; it’s onward and upward for them. Or, lateral, and hopefully eventually upward, for them!

I don’t think it has to be that way, and I’ll mention that next. But often it is. I hear that from many, many legal secretaries and paralegals, so I must assume it is true in many cases. The exceptions are those who have worked with one or two attorneys for a long time and who feel–and are treated—as an important part of the team. Incidentally, I hear the same concerns expressed by medical and dental assistants who float in a practice, rather than being assigned to one doctor or the same group of doctors. All of us like the feeling that we belong, that we are significant and that we can get to know someone over time. It is also true that the work changes according to the person generating it, and those changes can be very frustrating! 4. Consider this: When your review comes up, be as direct as possible, by saying, “I have worked with X attorneys in X months. That is becoming really frustrating because I just learn the work style of one person, then I begin working with someone else. That makes me feel that somehow I’m doing something wrong, that I’m just a fill-in, or that attorneys don’t want to work with me. Could you tell me what I could do in the coming year to stabilize my work situation?” You may even want to encourage the maximum openness by saying, “Please level with me about it, if there is something I need to do or stop doing. This has really bothered me.”

That way you aren’t asking them to explain their corporate decisions, if that was what was behind the changes–and you’re making it clear what you want. You are also clearly showing your willingness to find out the source of the situation. You may even want to state a goal: “I would like to work with the same attorney for at least a full year at a time, as Cheryl, Karen and Rachel have done. What would it take for me to get to do that?”

Also, by asking directly, it will require a more direct answer. The person giving you your review will have to say, “There’s nothing you can do about it, because that’s just the way it is.” Or, they can say, “Here are some things that might help.” Or, they might say something else that might help you get a better handle on what is happening.

This also brings up an important point: What DO you want to have changed? It’s always good, if you are talking about concerns, to be able to clearly express what you want to stay the same, what you want to have changed, and what that change could be to make it seem right to you.

5. As I read your message, it seems to me that you have a general concern, apart from the specifics. You seem to feel–and correctly–that your work life is dictated to you, without regard to your feelings about it, or how it affects your work. That may be a reality in many workplaces, but I don’t think it has to be.

It certainly doesn’t seem conducive to the best work product in a setting such as yours, where the work of an secretarial support person can have such an impact. Do you have a good working relationship with any of the others in your position? Is it possible to encourage a stronger feeling of camaraderie with them, even though you and they may not be as influential as you would like, in the big picture? Could you suggest noon-time get-togethers, work-improvement meetings, or other activities appropriate to the setting?

You know your group best, and those ideas may not be possible. But I think you need to find a way to help yourself and others feel in control of some aspects of your work environment.

6. You may also find it helpful to make a plus out of the revolving door of attorneys. Get a digital camera and have photos taken of you and them, then make a display to which you can easily add additional photos. Think of your varied experiences as a way to add value to you and your work. You could truthfully say you have had more experience with adapting to changes, and reading personality differences, than anyone in the office! Keep a record of their birthdays and other significant times, and send a short email of good wishes. Be a constant in their ping-pong careers–it may pay off for you sometime! Even if it doesn’t, you will feel better and so will they.

But for now, if working with the same attorney for at least a full year or more, is important to you–find out how you can do that. If it isn’t possible to do it, you can decide if you want to stay in that situation, or if you want to see if work is different in another legal firm. You may find you would prefer to work in a smaller office, where there are fewer attorneys, and closer relationships within the staff.



Best wishes as you work to develop a plan of action! If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know the results.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.