In this article I discuss the law firm support position of legal secretary. Recent efforts to understand and better manage this position have been marginally successful, but much more can be done. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the position, which has historically comprised 50% or more of a law firm’s support personnel, remains a significant challenge.
The “issue” of the legal secretary is a vexing one. On one hand, they have been, and in many cases continue to be, a critical component of the law firm support system. On the other, the effectiveness of the legal secretary position has been dramatically affected by advancing technology and the introduction of attorneys that are more independent and tech-savvy with each passing year. Many, including numerous legal secretaries, feel the position as it is presently structured is becoming obsolete as a result of these changes.
Law firms have most often attempted to address these concerns by taking one or more of the following courses of action:
Retooling. This approach assumes that legal secretaries are simply “out-of-step” with the current needs of the practice. To address this, firms have undertaken efforts to identify the current support requirements of their practice and retrain legal secretaries accordingly.
While certainly the most commendable approach, firms attempting to retool have encountered several challenges. Foremost, they experienced difficulty identifying curriculum common among all legal secretaries. Because each practice and attorney utilizes secretaries differently, the training provided frequently missed the mark or went underutilized. Additionally, they would encounter resistance from protective partners of those secretaries refusing to take advantage of available training, as well as those who simply do not possess the aptitude to learn new technologies and methods.
Rightsizing. This approach, utilized often by large firms, assumes that there are just too many legal secretaries. In the not too distant past, it was common for legal secretaries to represent more than 50% of a firm’s total support personnel. Accordingly, positions were reduced in an effort to move closer to secretary-to-attorney ratios determined to be ideal.
Although blunt, nearly every firm of any reasonable size carried legal secretaries that did not maintain their skills and who were diminished in their ability to support busy attorneys. Putting longevity and personal relationships aside, the first round, or even two, of these reductions were relatively easy to accomplish in most firms. Problems arose after firms attempted to go beyond the initial reductions. Attorneys began to question the reductions when seemingly competent secretaries were asked to leave. Anxiety rose regarding the wisdom of blindly pursuing staffing ratios that were not supported by thoughtful analysis. Further, as these reductions were surely to have an impact on the practice, concerns were raised about how those impacts would be planned for and managed.
Ignoring. A final approach, common in mid-sized and smaller firms, is to not focus on the issue in a significant way. While ignoring a problem is never advisable, to the extent the challenge is recognized, it is perceived as a less significant one that is a lower priority.
In these environments, the issue may in fact be less of a problem. In addition to having more modest administrative infrastructures, it is common for these firms to embrace technological advances to a lesser degree leaving them to rely on legal secretaries in a more traditional way. However, in cases where these firms do recognize the challenge, because of their size, management often finds it difficult to distance themselves from the personal effects of the decision. This closeness makes gathering support of partners to address the issue difficult, if not impossible.
While each of the approaches have their respective rationale for being undertaken, they also have their respective limitations and unintended consequences. In fact, because the challenge of managing the legal secretary still exists, it is evident that these efforts have done little to address the fundamental issue.
Before real progress can be made, we must take a step back to understand the complexity of the situation. When doing so, we identify three unique characteristics of the legal secretary position. These unique characteristics, which are often overlooked, are critical factors to consider when attempting to improve the utilization legal secretaries.
Diversity: The issue common to most efforts is that they focus on legal secretaries as if they were a single cohesive group of employees performing comparable functions. In fact, they are so varied and complex, grouping them under a single title is misleading.
The variation within the legal secretary role is driven by the characteristics of the attorneys or other legal personnel they are assigned to support. The primary characteristics are a) their practice area of concentration, b) the amount of other support available, c) their level of experience, and d) their personal preferences.
Even in firms that focus on a specific area of law, or group their secretaries into teams, these factors combine into endless possibilities, and in some cases, extreme variation.
Integration: Another issue common to most efforts is they focus exclusively on the legal secretary. This focus ignores the fact that many of the duties they perform are shared by and overlap those of other support personnel. While it varies from firm to firm and from position to position, the role of every legal secretary overlaps with some other administrative personnel.
For those firms that have clearly defined administrative departments with dedicated leadership, this is a daunting prospect because it means some of the functions within their departmental boundaries are being performed by employees outside of their influence and control. This is an awkward scenario for any manager who takes their responsibilities seriously and no doubt one of the primary reasons legal secretaries continue to present a management challenge. For those having difficulty visualizing this, consider the following:
- Mail/Messenger: Secretaries prepare, review, open and send mail as well as occasionally make messenger deliveries.
- Copy Centers: Secretaries routinely print, scan and copy documents.
- Records: Secretaries often organize and file documents.
- Docket: Secretaries prepare and even perform court filings.
- Document Processing: Secretaries commonly type, revise and create documents.
- Marketing: Secretaries often create and prepare presentations and marketing materials and also assist with RFP responses.
- Technology: Secretaries are often the first place attorneys go for technical issues.
- Finance: Secretaries are often involved in client billing and collection efforts.
- Human Resources: Secretaries frequently assist attorneys preparing to interview candidates, and on occasion, assist in the evaluation and compensation process.
This integration of the legal secretary into the larger support system of the firm presents many challenges. However, since reality is the integration already exists, the fundamental issues facing firms are 1) determining an appropriate level of integration, 2) providing necessary training and support, and 3) coordinating the management of the diverse employee groups that overlap.
Relationships: It takes many shapes and rarely looks the same twice, but the intimate relationship a secretary can develop with their assigned attorneys can be a wondrous thing. However, as firms become larger and more complex, many personnel who do not interact often with them find the relationships perplexing, and at times, exacerbating.
For those of us who have worked closely with legal secretaries, we understand what causes this special bond to be formed. First, secretaries are physically the closest support personnel to the attorney. As a result, they are the first to hear about challenges, failures, and successes both at the firm and also in their personal life. Second, they are the closest support personnel to the attorney’s clients. Knowing detailed information to answer a question or help the attorney manage the client relationship is often critical to the attorney’s success.
Once established, this relationship will become a factor in any change affecting the support services utilized by an attorney. In some instances it will even inhibit the attorney’s ability to effectively evaluate a secretary’s performance.
As discussed earlier, legal secretaries continue to fill a very specialized role within the law firm support system. While unique and highly beneficial in many respects, issues can arise when they do not keep pace with changes in technology and the practice or when conflicts arise with other support personnel who are becoming increasingly more specialized.
Every firm, regardless of size or practice focus, has experienced these issues to varying degrees and has likely attempted one or more of the actions outlined previously. Regardless of whether their effort was measured as a success or a failure, the fundamental issue of how best to manage and utilize legal secretaries into the future likely remains an ongoing concern.
Every firm will need to tailor their approach to fit their specific situation and culture, but to truly address this issue in a meaningful way; successful initiatives will need to include the following:
Diversity: As previously discussed, the legal secretary position is not as homogenous as many would like to believe. In order for an initiative to be successful, we must embrace this diversity and seek ways to fully understand the different roles each individual plays in support of the practice.
Any effort must begin with collecting detailed information about how each legal secretary spends their time. What sort of activities do they perform? How much of each? Which are in support of their assigned attorneys and which are not?
Most firms do not have systems in place capable of managing this requirement so we must develop innovative tools and methods that allow us to capture and visualize these diverse requirements. Not doing so facilitates stereotyping of the position which is a significant contributing factor to the persistent nature of this challenge.
Integration: As mentioned earlier, to varying degrees, the legal secretary position interfaces with and overlaps the roles of virtually every other support function within the firm. Although these relationships can be complex, in order to improve our understanding and better manage the legal secretary position, we must include an analysis of all the business processes involving a legal secretary.
Only when these roles are clearly visible will it be possible to either solidify their involvement with procedures, policies and training or reduce their involvement deferring to the department or personnel primarily responsible for the service.
While this effort can be significant, it is required before we can make thoughtful management decisions that allow us to efficiently and effectively support the practice of our firms.
Relationships: Understanding the often special relationship that can form between an attorney and their secretary and the factors that cause it to develop are critical to managing the secretary’s role effectively and our ability to develop viable alternatives to how the position is presently structured.
Regardless of how we feel about this special relationship, it has proven highly successful and has withstood the test of time. As we perform our analysis and begin to plan changes, we need to keep the two factors in mind that cause this special bond to form: a) that secretaries are the closest support personnel to the attorney, and b) that secretaries are the closest support personnel to the attorney’s clients.
Planning any changes that adversely affect either of these two factors will likely be met with resistance and ultimately fail. Recognizing the need, communicating openly, and properly planning the replacement or redirection of the need is required for any initiative to be successful.
In this article I have shared insights into a significant challenge facing nearly every law firm – how to address the challenges presented by the role of the legal secretary and ultimately provide more effective and efficient support to the practice.
While I have shared a brief history of the position, common actions taken by firms, key characteristics of the position, and realities which must be understood before firms will be able to make significant progress, I have not directly answered the question “Do law firms still need legal secretaries?”
While there is no single answer to this question that fits every firm’s unique situation, the role of the legal secretary has changed and continues to change as technology and other factors apply their relentless pressure. Having accepted that reality, we may not call them “legal secretaries” in the future, but law firms and their attorneys will likely always need skilled and dedicated support personnel – a role filled most competently for many decades by legal secretaries.
About the author: William D. Mech is a veteran legal administrator and Principal with ofPartner Consulting Services www.ofpartnerocs.com which provides a host of analytical and performance assessment services designed to improve the operation of law firms. Comments or questions about this article can be sent to him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.