How to Use An Assistant: In Search of Best Practices

I have a great assistant at Harvard Law School, and I get 1/3 of his time for support. I suspect, however, that I am not using him as effectively as I might, so I want to find out for what tasks other readers use their assistants. I use mine primarily for the following tasks: processing receipts and payments, help with the course website, accepting and returning course papers (which I grade blindly), getting permissions and otherwise producing coursepacks, managing clerkship and other recommendation letters, culling addresses and otherwise arranging the sending out of reprints.

What am I missing? I also would welcome any orthogonal advice or cautionary tales regarding using assistants from the readership….

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11 Responses

  1. Jason Mazzone says:

    All the things you mention free up your time for other activities. This is, of course, valuable. An additional benefit is that a really good assistant can actually add value to the things you already have to do yourself. My assistant proof reads everything I write, she catches lots of errors, and she always has good suggestions for improving the writing. She also formats everything for me, turning my drab work into a professional product. I used to just print out cases I needed to take to a presentation. She now handles that and organizes everything into a binder with tabs. (This always provokes oohs and aahs from other conference participants.) This summer, she has been taking my scribbled notes for classes, which I just dump in a box, and organizing them into an easily-accessible form. She also works with my RAs, getting their assignments in on time, making sure they have all the materials I am going to need, and so on. She will say that she enjoys having these kinds of extra responsibilities and especially enjoys having a range of tasks.

  2. This post reminded me of all the liabilities associated with the endeavor to be an “independent” scholar (although my wife has occasionally proofread some of my stuff).

  3. Ezra Rosser says:

    To your list, I add scanning documents that I need to retain copies of such as student evaluations or that I want to use in class such as graphics associated with cases that I find in books.

  4. Ken Rhodes says:

    Picture yourself temporarily weakened by some physical condition that left you perpetually fatigued. You would have to limit yourself to the activities that only you could do, and you would have to find a bright assistant who might not have any of your expertise or experience in your field, but would have a good sense for your other activities. In other words, a generalist with some business and life experience who would work diligently on whatever needs to be done.

    So delegate to your assistant those things you would not get around to if your were always tired.

  5. You don’t use the word “research assistant,” which I hope is deliberate. You also do not mention whether the assistant is a HLS student. I can’t tell you how many Australian labor laws you would violate if you tried to use a student to do the menial tasks you describe in the post. Our students help us with research — and the more sophisticate their duties, the more they get paid.

  6. lawanon says:

    @KevinJonHeller: fortunately, US labor laws do not prohibit people from hiring someone to do menial tasks for them. And our laws do not have special exceptions for students, even if some students think that menial tasks are beneath their dignity. An individual school might have rules on how a prof can spend his research budget (i.e., whether he is allowed to hire someone outside his own school), but this is contractual, negotiable, and has nothing to do with labor laws. I hired an assistant from a developing country to do technical work (she did the work while stationed at that country), which saved me a ton of money and made the assistant very happy; I had an outside grant for this, though.

  7. Mike says:

    Have him purge all uses of “orthogonal,” save for your math publications.

    Seriously, I would ask him what else he does for others that he thinks might be useful for you; if you don’t want to go that route, ask your immediate colleagues. What’s appropriate and reasonable depends very much on the particular assistant and on what his peers do at that institution.

    I think the peer context is much less relevant for student RAs, who being part-time and temporary tend to be somewhat less keenly interested in whether they are being treated in the same way as others. (In this sense, my experience is very indirectly in tension with Kevin’s; I perceive assistants to have just as many social norms restricting their assignments as with RAs. I certainly don’t see why students should have more restricted uses, save for my sense that it should strive to be an educational experience for them and that they may be better employed on more sophisticated things.) I would be very interested in another post soliciting the effective use of RAs, particularly how to manage them so as to make it a great experience for all concerned.

    P.S. to Ken Rhodes: What you describe is a recipe for a tragedy of the commons in any shared assistantship. (Speaking as one who routinely finds all the outer margins of the pasture filled with another’s herd, and colleagues feigning inability even to navigate inward.) Plus which, actionable as faking chronic fatigue syndrome.

  8. Glenn Cohen says:

    Hey, I like orthogonal! Thanks for all the comments. I had meant this to be purely about a full-time assistant and will indeed be posting a parallel entry on student research assistants next.

  9. Mike says:

    Serious but trivial aside: In law school-speak, “orthogonal” has been corrupted to mean “kind of related but not on point” (the welcoming form) or “purportedly relevant but not really” (the dismissive form). I think the welcoming form, which I assume is what you intended, is even less defensible than the dismissive form. Neither bears the kind of keen relationship to the technical term that would warrant its pretension. And in any case, the fact that two such inconsistent meanings may be employed suggests that the term “orthogonal” is orthogonal within itself, which you just know risks destruction of the universe.

    If I am right about your meaning, try “related.”

  10. non-eite-anon says:

    I read orthagonal and thought elitist word usage. Normal people don’t talk like that. But it’s the legal academy, so rock on with it.

  11. Orin Kerr says:


    No, I don’t think you’re missing anything. Although I suspect Harvard is unusual in having one assistant for three professors. I think my assistant works for 6 or 7 professors, and I can go a month or more without contacting her.


    I’ve always thought that when law professors say something is orthogonal, they means that the inner product of the vectors of the two ideas is zero. And then I think to myself, “phew, glad I don’t need to know any linear algebra anymore.”