The era of the legal secretary who deciphers handwritten drafts of pleadings, takes dictation and keeps her boss's calendar is drawing to a close.
Between the advent of computers and the advent of lawyers who grew up with them, the job of a legal secretary has changed. While secretaries may still do typing, filing and scheduling for older lawyers, those who work with young attorneys say they function more as legal assistants.
"We've seen the beginnings of [a] shift, but as the generations proceed, there'll be soon more younger [lawyers] than the old- timers, so to speak, and I think we're witnessing a real evolution in the role of what is currently called a legal secretary...," said William G. Psillas, Director of Administration at Miles & Stockbridge P.C.
Because the new generation of lawyers does not, by and large, need as much tending as their older counterparts, law firms are decreasing the size of their secretarial staffs.
At the same time, secretaries and those responsible for hiring them say it's getting more difficult to find a secretary with the skills necessary to succeed in a law firm.
Victoria Wagner, administrator at Levin & Gann, P.A., said she looks for different qualities in a secretary, depending on the preferences of the lawyer she's hiring for, which are often dependent on age.
"[T]he more experienced attorneys use secretaries in the more traditional sense," said Wagner, who started her career as a secretary. "They want them to be their typist, their transcriptionist, their coffee clerk, so to speak.
Older lawyers, she said, want their secretaries to "anticipate what they want."
Michael W. Siri, an associate at Bowie & Jensen, LLC, and head of the Maryland State Bar Association's Young Lawyers section, said his generation types its own pleadings and letters and generally takes charge of its own scheduling.
He said younger lawyers are more likely to use their secretaries to scan documents into the computer, so the papers can be sent to clients or worked on at home. Siri said his own secretary takes care of electronically filing documents with various courts and putting together trial notebooks for him.
Siri said he views himself, his paralegal, and his secretary as "working as more of a team, where we all have specific duties working on behalf of the client."
"My job is primarily doing the legal work, [but] if I can have the legal secretary do work that would make my job easier, she'll do that," he said. "The goal is to be most cost-effective."
It appears that some young lawyers, at least, are unsure of what to ask their secretary to do. In a post last month on the Above the Law blog, blogger David Lat wrote that when he worked for a big firm, he didn't have much work for his secretary.
"Her primary duty was to assist us in printing out correspondence so that the text of letters fell below the sprawling firm letterhead," Lat wrote on his blog, which is popular with young lawyers.
He also quoted an e-mail from a young associate who solicited suggestions for tasks to give a secretary, writing that, aside from compiling expense reports, the associate wasn't sure what to ask her to do.
Many commenters on the blog wrote that they, too, had little for their secretaries to do, though some said they had plenty. They wrote that they ask their secretaries to, among other tasks, write deposition summaries, take dictation, track correspondence and make travel arrangements.
Bonnie Rae, a secretary at Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, LLP, said she sees the generational differences between older and younger attorneys daily.
"My senior attorney is semi-retired and he's very old-style -- he doesn't even have a computer," said Rae, who has been a legal secretary for 30 years.
Rae said she functions as his computer, sending e-mails for him and keeping his electronic calendar.
Her role with younger attorneys is quite different, she said.
"My baby associates who have just gotten out of law school who are extraordinarily computer-literate, for them I'm basically teaching them how a law firm operates," Rae said.
Dee Beardsley, president-elect of NALS, a professional association for secretaries and paralegals, said that secretaries who work with young lawyers are responsible for helping them "develop their good habits."
For instance, said Beardsley, a supervisor of secretaries at the San Diego office of Latham & Watkins, LLP, young lawyers need to learn that even though they can type their own letters and pleadings, doing their own proofreading and formatting is not the best use of their time.
"We understand that attorneys now think at the computer, but at some point it no longer becomes effective to be working" on a document, she said. "You need to turn it over to your secretary to be formatted, to be edited, to be proofed."
She said that whether secretaries are deciphering an attorney's handwritten briefs and typing them up, or whether they are just putting the finishing touches on documents, "the basic function is the same."
"It's to make the work product for the client and for the firm and for the attorney be the best it can be," Beardsley said.
Nevertheless, since new lawyers now handle much of the initial work themselves, large law offices have cut the number of secretaries they hire.
"Certainly, within the industry, the trend is toward a significantly reduced secretarial pool," said Psillas, director of administration at Miles & Stockbridge.
Psillas said Miles has seen a "modest reduction" in its relative number of secretaries. Five years ago, he said, the average number of lawyers per secretary was somewhat less than two; now it's slightly more than two.
Rae said that when she started as a secretary in a Washington, D.C., firm three decades ago, she did secretarial work for two lawyers. Now, she said, she works with three lawyers and a paralegal, and she also fills in with other attorneys when their secretaries are out.
Some firms now have even larger attorney-to-secretary ratios; Beardsley said she has heard of secretaries being assigned four, five and even six lawyers.
At some firms, work that used to be performed by secretaries is now outsourced. Venable, for example, farms out word processing to a separate company that works out of Venable's offices, spokesman Charles Wilkins said. Miles & Stockbridge does not outsource secretarial work, but likely will in the future, Psillas said.
Though secretaries are losing some of their traditional work, in many offices they are being entrusted with new kinds of jobs. For example, Bev Pivec, Director of Administration at the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, said secretaries in some divisions there do online case tracking and Westlaw research.
Pivec explained that, in addition to costing less than paralegals, secretaries can perform both traditional secretarial tasks like typing and filing, as well as some basic paralegal tasks. Paralegals, on the other hand, typically do not want to do secretarial work.
"It's pretty much across the board that the traditional legal secretary is kind of evolved into a little bit more," Pivec said.
Perhaps partly because of their double utility, secretaries continue to command good salaries.
In the Baltimore area, the median salary for an entry-level legal secretary is $34,611 and the median for a very experienced secretary is $50,272, according to the career web site Monster.com. The median for an entry-level paralegal in Baltimore is $43,997, while the most experienced earns $68,441.
In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the medians are $36,261 for a beginning secretary, $52,669 for an experienced secretary, $46,094 for an entry-level paralegal and $71,703 for an advanced paralegal.
Levin & Gann's Wagner said that these days fewer people want secretarial jobs, so demand outstrips supply. People who, 30 years ago, might have become legal secretaries are now becoming paralegals, she said.
"Finding someone who wants to... just be a secretary is more and more nonexistent because girls come out of school, or boys, and they don't want to just sit behind a desk and type somebody's words," Wagner said. "They want to think for themselves. They want more."
The problem with finding a good legal secretary isn't only that there are fewer candidates; it's that those who are interested do not always have the skills necessary to do the job, some say.
"I'm not sure that basic English skills are taught as rigorously as they should be and, particularly in law... where words are darn important. If you can't spell properly and if you can't punctuate properly, you're going to be a drawback to your boss," Rae said.
Wagner said that secretaries today don't live by the advice she received from a vocational education teacher when she entered the field. "She said the way you succeed in business is to make yourself indispensable, and I always followed that," she said. "'You couldn't do this job without me.'"
(This article was originally published in The (Baltimore) Daily Record, another Dolan Media publication).Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires.
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