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Ask Judy: 'I Didn't Go To School For This'

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Q: I'm an associate attorney at a small firm, and one of the partners is a friend of my dad's (it's how I got the interview in the first place). However, I feel I got the job because I was the best qualified. In any case, he's constantly asking me to get coffee for him, take lunch orders and do other menial errands for him and the rest of the office. It's not that big a deal, and we all wear many hats here, but I didn't go to law school for this. How do I get him to stop asking?

A: First, I would argue that this is a big deal to you if you are so bothered by it that you are seeking advice. It's OK to admit it to yourself and others when you feel you are experiencing something that is unfair. Until you own the fact that there might a problem, you wont have the motivation to go about confronting the problem. It's important to keep things in perspective, but don't try to minimize your feelings and dismiss things by saying that they are "not that big of a deal" when they clearly are for you.

Second, being the newbie in the workplace is a difficult position and it can take awhile to accept and work through the office dynamics. You don't want to appear as if you are not a team player but at the same time, you don't want to be taken advantage of. The fact is that yes, as an associate you will at times have to fetch coffee, pick up dry cleaning and perform other tasks that are not representative of your education and expertise. It can be a real blow to our egos when we feel as if our hard earned degrees don't matter as much as our ability to get the morning coffee orders right. But it's called paying your dues and you have to think of it as a rite of passage. One day, when you are further up the totem pole, you will have better perspective to see how this works. When the firm brings in new attorneys in the future, you will now be the one asking them to do the same thing that you were once asked to do. While you are in the position that you are in now though, make the best of it. After you're done getting coffee, for example, ask if you can help out with a special project or use that interaction to offer your opinions or seek advice on a project that you are working on. They know you can do more than be an assistant, but sometimes you have to remind them why they hired you in the first place.

However, at some point, you have to move out of your "newbie role." You are a qualified professional and can not be expected to wear all of the hats all of the time. If you find that you are the only one who is constantly asked to do menial things, then you may need to address it with your employer. You need to make a point that you were hired to be a lawyer -- and you are less effective at your job when you have to perform other duties. If you don't know how to approach the topic, the next time you are asked to get coffee you might want to say something to the effect of: "My priorities for the day are ABC so I can meet the XYZ deadline. Do you want me to stop what I'm doing here or can you find someone else to run that errand? I won't have time to get to both." Or, you could say "I'm too busy working on that deposition to get you lunch, but I'd be glad to pass on your order to your assistant. Would you like me to do that?" Both of these are professional ways of pointing out that your boss is treating you unprofessionally. Or, depending on your relationship, you could make a joke about how you'll be happy to take office lunch orders -- again -- but at the rate of $350 an hour (or whatever your hourly billing rate may be) it might make more financial sense to use your skills elsewhere and give that task to someone else.

If your boss still pushes you to do such tasks then you will have to draw some boundaries yourself in order to get your point across. For example, if he or she wants you to spend half the day running errands, then fine. But that doesn't mean that you now need to stay up half the night to finish work that you would have and should have finished during the day otherwise. After a while, your boss will stop putting these errands on you when what' s really important doesn't get done.

If you are willing to take a more direct stance and feel that this is truly not an issue of "paying your dues" (sometimes bosses simply take advantage of their position -- they don't have boundaries and their demands are unreasonable and unprofessional) then you may want to think about about having a talk where you explicitly discuss your scope of duties until you both come to an understanding of what you were hired to do. Make sure you are respectful and you may find that having such a discussion actually will make your boss respect you more because you are clearly stating your worth and demanding to be treated as a serious member of the team.

Be aware though that some of these options are tricky. It would be great if your boss acknowledged your point of view and responded appropriately, but sometimes an employer's unrealistic expectations won't change and when they see that you are not willing to cater to their demands, they will easily find someone else who will. So be strategic and be prepared that standing up for yourself and demanding respect may mean that you could be out of a job. You have to be prepared to walk away. The good thing though, is that you will be saving yourself a lot of frustration, wasted time and heartache from having the courage to take such an action. You won't find yourself sitting in the same position 5 years from now dealing with the same issue. Instead you'll be employed somewhere where your skills are respected and reflected in the work you do.Personal crisis about to erupt? Reputation in need of repair? Email us your dilemma and get Judy's take on how to handle it.