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When a paralegal first joins a firm, it is natural for the paralegal to look up to the lawyer as the mentor. After a few days, the paralegal soon learns that the nearest and most accessible mentor is his secretary.
Because the secretary is hidden behind the computer with a dangly headset, sandwiched between the file cabinets, do not think that this person is a mechanic. Not true. Given a few years’ experience, the legal secretary probably knows more about what goes on around the office than anyone else. Ask any lawyer. The legal secretary is the core of the law firm and not easily impressed by the briefcase toting paralegal. Many offices are fortunate to have secretaries with ten or more years’ experience. Paralegals will learn from the legal secretary’s valuable expertise if they are smart.
All it takes is for the newly indoctrinated paralegal to attempt to put together a summons and complaint to be served upon five defendants in different counties. The paralegal can bungle through it the hard way, making calls to all the counties to find out the costs of service of process and filing and the number of copies required. If paralegals want to learn diplomacy, they will merely go politely to the secretary’s desk and ask diplomatically, and then walk away with the answer in a few minutes. This is much easier.
Legal secretaries store a compendium of information either in their head or in an accessible place. They may compile this invaluable information in little black books. They read the court notices giving changes about filing copies of documents, number of copies, and other procedural requirements and not just in litigation. A corporate secretary has other important information if the paralegal had to find in a hurry, he couldn’t. Try to get through to the busy numbers at the secretary of state’s office.
Those paralegals who do not look at their secretaries as an extension of themselves will find themselves floundering. While many secretaries could do parts of certain paralegal tasks, few paralegals could do most secretarial duties.
Together secretaries and paralegals are a team supporting the attorney.
Many secretaries are highly educated and have had respected careers in other industries. There are those secretaries who are holding down this job so that they can work normal hours and be with their family. They are not the “Mrs. Whiggins” stereotyped by Carol Burnette. They are professionals in every sense of the word.
With “personal” or “private” secretaries passé, the “New-Age Secretary” may be computer literate, fiscally smart, fashionably groomed, public relations savvy, marketing wise, fluent in legalese, and able to spot potential liability in a flash.
The legal secretary’s role is rapidly changing, and as more secretaries set their sights on becoming paralegals, and then jump ship to enter paralegal school, the roles may began to merge.
Meanwhile, as a paralegal that uses the computer, you still will be dependent upon a competent legal secretary to assist you.
Respect the Legal Secretary
Paralegals entering the new legal world would best learn from the natives. While paralegal graduates may have considerable legal training and significant education, the day-to-day world of law is an extraordinary animal. It is strange in that it is unlike working in a corporate office, a medical environmental, and much different from the accounting and architectural world. Why? It is unique, because it is a different discipline. It is ruled by rules, laws, and a strict code of ethics, to which every person in the law office must adhere.