Insights for New Legal Assistants
On January 19th, 2017, I had my first speaking engagement for the legal assistant students at Robertson College. I was anxious to present but needed to get out of my comfort zone and this was the perfect opportunity. Thank you so much to Andy, Julie, Michelle and everyone in career services for your guidance and support last year. I’ve included the rough draft of my presentation below.
Hello! My name is John Seymour and I am a legal assistant in labour and employment law. I currently work for the firm Taylor McCaffrey LLP, here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As some of you may know, I was still only a student this past October and sitting in those exact seats! I started my practicum the second week of October and was hired on full time in November.
So some of you may be wondering, “who is this guy and why should I listen to him if he literally started working just a few months ago?” And that is the same question I’ve asked myself. When I was first offered this speaking engagement, I was excited because I need to get out of my comfort zone but also, I enjoy being in front of a crowd. Speaking, acting, whatever. I just enjoy the process of being in front of people. But the thing is, once I accepted it, I thought to myself… What the hell do I know? Hopefully I can answer that today.
But first, let’s backtrack to a year ago… I was still working part time at Red Lobster. I was working as a busser and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. No idea whatsoever. Luckily, my friend Nicole had just finished her time in the Legal Assistant program here at Robertson, and was on practicum. We got onto the discussion of school and I have always been interested in a law career and thought that what she was taking was pretty cool, so I started to ask her about it. She told me how much she really enjoyed the course and that she was on practicum at Taylor McCaffrey, at the time. She loved it and knew she wanted to do this for the rest of her life, so that really caught my interest and made me want to look into it as well.
But, if I can be 100% honest here… I don’t have my high school diploma. I am missing both grade 12 English and Math and the reason being is that I was not the brightest person in the world when I was 17/18 years old. I had just begun working at a movie theatre and loved it there thinking I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. It didn’t help that I got into management pretty quickly and there were no jobs that needed a high school degree, unless I wanted to work in corporate with this company. So I thought I had it all made. Luckily things didn’t work out and now I’ve found what I love, but at the time when I was considering college, I thought I had no options left but to get my GED. I did not want to go back to school for another year, just to have to go back again in order to do this course, totaling about two years of my life, so I just didn’t consider that there could be other options at the time. So I decided to go online and see whether there were any options out there. That’s when I decided to just go ahead and just get in touch with the school.
After filling out the form online, Val from career services got in touch with me and had me come in that same day. I did a quick little test in order to show that I would be able to understand the content of the course. I passed so I decided to enroll as a mature student. So that’s how I got started.
Today, I want to touch on a few key things that I think were imperative to my success with the course and finding work. The first thing I’d like to go over is grammar and spelling. I cannot emphasize enough how important grammar and spelling is in this career.. Next we’ll talk about asking questions because you are going to be doing that a lot. Sometimes I ask questions five to ten times per task. There are so many different ways and different procedures to every little thing, it’s impossible to teach it all in the length of time this course is. Lastly, we’ll get into some of the more day to day things that I do. Right now I’m a floater in the labour department so I’m not the busiest person on my floor, but there’s still quite a bit I do end up doing throughout my day.
First I want to talk about spelling and grammar because it is so important. Julie has told that me she feels like she sounds like a broken record about grammar, but there’s a reason. It’s because it’s so important. Even before coming here today, I asked the other assistants for advice they would give and every single one of them told me to emphasize spelling and grammar. A lot of the practicum students that they see never bothered to really know their grammar so a lot of them just didn’t get hired. The lawyers that you work for could be charging anywhere from $160 to $450 an hour, sometimes more. They cannot afford to look like they don’t understand basic English. The forms, the letters, everything you write has the lawyers name on it, not yours.
When I first started my practicum, I felt as though I was good with my grammar, and it wasn’t until one of the lawyers I work for sent me back work to say “I fixed this and that, I made it more consistent and I took out all the contractions” that I realised I still had a lot of work to do. And trust me, it is embarrassing when the lawyer is sending you work they fixed for you, more so than if the other assistants do so. That’s when I decided to take an extra course online in grammar. It’s a working skill that we all need to know, especially in a professional environment like a law firm. If you can’t learn basic grammar, don’t expect to work in a professional environment, not just a law firm but any professional environment. It’s not a skill that we all use day to day, especially with texting and social media, but in the professional world it is so important.
With that said, I still ask questions about my grammar to ensure it’s top notch. Actually, I ask so many questions that I start to feel bad before 10:00 am even hits some days. There are so many different ways and different procedures to do one task that asking questions is such an essential part of the job. Even here in class, I asked a lot of questions every single day, whether I thought it would sound stupid to others or not, I asked questions because I knew that I may not be the only one wondering and because I wanted to know the material inside and out. Personally, I loved every minute of being here. I found it to be fun, I really enjoyed the people I got to meet and be in class with and I liked the instructors a lot. So when it came down to knowing things, I wanted to know everything I could so I constantly asked questions anytime I didn’t know or wasn’t 100% sure on something.
When you go onto practicum, your first week could be so overwhelming that you start to forget some of the stuff you learned here. The first day of my practicum, I met with HR for the morning to go over things like policies, procedures, benefits, all the admin stuff they need to go over with you. And then I spent the rest of the day and the whole next morning in training with IT. There are so many processes to doing things that it was very overwhelming and I felt very fortunate to be with such a great group of people, that I was able to constantly ask questions. I thought I was asking a lot here but I ask more questions in a day at work than I did here in a week. The other assistants and the lawyers know that your new and in training, they understand. They want you to ask questions so they know where you’re at and what you need the most help with. Anytime I say sorry for asking questions, the other assistants tell me to stop. They tell me they had to do the same thing and you can’t make it in this career without getting help from others. It’s a very unique career, in that your very independent but you rely so heavily on the help of others in order to do your job. The only thing they don’t want is to hear essentially the same exact questions 5, 6 times. 2 or 3 times sure, but 5,6 times… maybe you should have been taking notes.
Finally, let’s get into the day to day stuff. What does the day of a legal assistant look like?
First thing I do in the morning is turn on my computer and then make a cup of coffee. I love coffee so it’s the first thing I get ready when I get into the office, unless there’s something pressing that needs to get done of course. Once I’ve done that, usually I’ll talk with the other assistants briefly to say hi and then I’ll sit down and get to work. This is a very independent career. You’re not being rushed to get things done, depending on your department of course, the real estate assistants are always busy that sometimes they don’t even take their breaks. Fortunately I’m in labour and employment and I’m only a floater, so I usually have more time to get small things like filing or closing files done… I hate closing files.
Once I’ve sat at my desk for the start of the day, I’ll begin by looking at my emails and then see if there are any pending dictations to do. I’ll also check to see if I had anything that I didn’t do the day before that should get done that day. Usually it’s just small things like opening or closing files. Sometimes it’ll be something bigger like an affidavit of documents, which at first I was excited for because they just brought in a new software, and I need to make myself less expendable, so I was the first to volunteer to learn it. But then about two weeks ago, I learned how much work really goes into it. I spent three full days coding in an affidavit of documents that needed to get out to the client. There were over 1,600 documents that needed to be coded and that was one of the most boring things I’ve done while working there.
Being in labour and employment, we didn’t go over that in class here. The closest thing would be corporate law but even then, it’s not the same. In labour and employment, we work for both big companies as well as individuals who would like to make a human rights complaint, or they feel they were wrongfully dismissed or they’re just having some issues at work and would like some legal advice. So a lot of our work obviously revolves around employment issues, as well as union collective agreements, contracts and a lot more. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head here. Another thing that I like is getting to see the different stories of all the different clients we have. It is insane the amount of things both employers and employees do to one another. Some things I could never even imagine could happen, happens. It’s a very interesting area of law to go into so it’s something I would definitely recommend looking at.
Just as an overview of what we’ve covered today, spelling and grammar is one of the most important things you could work on today, whether you feel you have it down or not – it’s a skill that will help you to find and keep employment, especially today when a lot of the younger generations don’t take it as seriously. Make sure you’re asking a lot of questions in class because you’re going to have a lot more of them when you’re on practicum. Take advantage of the knowledge that Andy and Julie bring to the table, that way you’re a step above the rest once you do begin working. And being a legal assistant is a very fun rewarding job. I love everything I do day in, day out – I get to be very independent while also getting to know everyone I work with and having them to there to assist me anytime I have a question.