A Legal Secretary in England – Half a Century Ago

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01Aug2009

A Legal Secretary in England – Half a Century Ago

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By Ann Stacey-Hibbert, The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs, Bristol, England

English Legal SecretaryIn 1957, I left school at the age of 16 after achieving excellent results in the RSA examinations in Typewriting, Shorthand and Commerce. I was also awarded a prize for the best shorthand student of the year. I dreamt of being on stage or a TV scriptwriter (yes, we had TV in 1957!) – anything in show business – but in those days these kind of jobs were virtually impossible to get into.

My other option was to become a teacher and my Headmaster arranged for me to have an interview at Trent Park Training College in Cockfosters, Hertfordshire. The building was really beautiful, in its lovely acres of grounds, and I was very excited about the prospect of training there. I had an interview, in front of the Headmaster and a Panel, which went well, and I was offered a provisional place subject to staying on at school for another two years and passing GCE ‘A’ levels. Unfortunately, times were hard and when I told my parents of my intentions, my father said that it was not possible for me to stay on at school as I had to start work to help with the family income. He said that I would make a good Secretary due to my qualifications, so this is what I pursued.

My journey to becoming a Legal Secretary thus began. We lived in Harrow Weald, a suburb North West of London, but I wanted to work in London as it would be more exciting. Fortunately, one of the elders of the Church that our family attended was a Partner in a small firm of Solicitors in London and he offered me a position with his firm, Messrs. Tackley Fall & Read in Duke Street, off Oxford Street in the West End of London (not far from Selfridges). I accepted the job as a Junior Secretary and, looking very smart and feeling important in my black suit, white blouse and black court shoes (no trousers were allowed in Solicitors’ offices in those days), made the journey of 1½ hours each day. The offices in Duke Street were old and decrepit (as were many firms of Solicitors back then) and I was put under the wing of an older, experienced Secretary called Hazel who trained and taught me everything to do with the law from a Legal Secretary’s perspective.

The first typewriter I worked with was a heavy black square Remington with a half black and half red ribbon on two spools. All documents had to be underlined in red except Wills which had to have underlining in black, befitting the occasion! Typing was hard work (Secretaries developed very strong wrists!), but I was determined to do my best.

The most difficult legal document to type was an Abstract of Title in Conveyancing. As it was typed on very large paper (even larger than A3), it had to be typed on a special typewriter with an extra long carriage. This had to be tabulated so that the different parts of the abstracted document were in different columns – the Parties, the Recitals, the Consideration, the Property, the Habendum, the Covenants, the Execution and Attestation. Conveyancing Deeds were often long, dating back to the turn of the 20th Century when Solicitors charged a guinea (£1.05p = approx. $1.77 USD) per folio (72 words) – the longer the document the more they got paid.

Deeds were typed out on thick ‘engrossment’ paper, pre-printed with red lines for the margins. Copies were made on ‘flimsy’ paper by means of carbon paper which was put in between the paper and the flimsy. The strike of the typewriter against the top copy imprinted itself on the flimsy. If you made a mistake, you had to correct it by rubbing out the top copy and the flimsy copy error with a special typewriter rubber, which was very hard and rough. If you weren’t careful you could rub a hole in the paper and had to start again with a new sheet. ‘Tippex’ had not been invented at the time and, when it was, it was sheer luxury. All you had to do was paint over the error with Tippex fluid (which was white or coloured to match the paper) and then type over the area when it dried. On certain documents, especially Wills or something really important, no alterations were allowed on original documents and if one was made they had to be typed all over again. Typing engrossments of Leases was very laborious as they had to be typed twice – the original Lease and the counterpart. Both documents had to be checked to make sure that they were identical and you had to find somebody in the office available with whom to do this. One would read out loud the original and the other would check the reading with the counterpart. Can you imagine doing that in the modern office today?!

It is quite amusing to think of it all, compared to how convenient it is now with templates for virtually every form or document on computer – where you can type in the appropriate sections on your word processor, automatic spell checking and being able to print out any number of copies you need with the click of a mouse.

When I first started work, my other duties included making the tea. On my very first week at this firm I was asked to make tea for a meeting of the two partners and four clients. The place where you made the tea was a tiny space behind a curtain, on the landing half way up the stairs. When I had made the tea, I took it down the stairs to the Partner’s room, where the meeting was taking place and, horror of horrors, the heel of my shoe caught in the tatty stair carpet and I lurched forward, complete with tray, down the remaining stairs, landing outside the Partner’s door, with cups, saucers and tea flying everywhere. You can imagine the noise. The door flew open and, to my utter embarrassment, the two Partners and four clients stood there aghast but, I must say, also with concern! I came out of it with a few bruises and managed not to lose my job (only the tea service).

I continued my education whilst I was working and went to evening classes three nights a week. It was quite hard as I didn’t get home until late, but it was worth it. Over 1½ years with this firm, I acquired a good knowledge of legal procedure and the typing of numerous different types of legal documents. My shorthand was always good, but my speed improved (there were no dictating machines and all dictation was taken down in shorthand). However, I felt it was time to move on as being in the same firm, which I had been in straight from school, made me feel like the office junior.

I obtained a good position in a firm only fifty yards away on the corner of Manchester Square – Messrs. Lionel Leighton & Co. With the better position went a better typewriter. I had a modern ‘streamlined’ Olivetti. The salary was brilliant at £12 per week and I remember thinking that I had achieved one of my goals of earning £600 a year. My previous salary had been £7 a week, of which I gave my mother £3 and paid for my train and bus fares every day. I worked in most areas of law – Conveyancing, Litigation, Probate and Commercial law. It was a very busy and well respected firm. Two of the Associate Solicitors eventually left and formed the firm of Berwin Leighton, who are now a very large and prestigious firm in the city. One of the firm’s clients was Heller & Partners and the firm acted for them in the famous case in Tort of Hedley-Byrne & Co. Ltd -v- Heller & Partners Ltd (1963), which many of you may have come across in your studies. I’m happy to say that I met my husband at this firm, when I was 17. We married two years later, when I was 19 and we have been married for 46 years now!

I loved working in London and during my lunch times I looked around the shops and went to Marylebone Public Library where you could borrow not only books but records as well (I loved classical music). I was very happy at Lionel Leighton & Co. until I was ‘promoted’ to work for one of the Senior Partners whose Secretary had left. He scared me silly and he would appear in dark glasses looking like someone from the Mafia! He never smiled and was always in a bad mood. ‘Time to move on!’ I thought.

Old times 2My next firm was in Crawford Street, in the same area, and I worked for one of the two Partners doing Matrimonial and Conveyancing, at an increased salary of £14 per week. I also worked for a Senior Managing Clerk (these days called a Paralegal or Legal Executive) who dealt with criminal cases. It was very interesting work. One day an alarming incident occurred. I had finished a document, had sewn it down the side with green silk ribbon (as you did in those days) and proceeded to seal the ribbon on the two ends where it was tied with sealing wax. Sealing wax came in a solid stick; you lit a match or a taper and melted the end of the stick over the knot. As I did this, the molten wax caught fire as it fell onto the document! I tried to put it out but to no avail and it caught fire to the filing tray, full of papers. My boss, smelling smoke, rushed into the room shouting ‘Call the Fire Brigade!’. He was a nervous man at the best of times, but on that occasion he was a nervous wreck. Luckily I grabbed the kettle, filled it with water and managed to put the fire out! However, we were a good team and I made some great friends. We always had something to laugh about (much to the annoyance of the Partners). One Christmas Eve, when we exchanged presents, I put on a pair of fluffy pink bed socks that I had been given and was dancing around the room with two of my colleagues, singing at the top of our voices, when one of the Partners walked in. We burst into laughter but he was not amused and we were told to get on with our work. Well, it was Christmas Eve!

After I married, we moved to Staines, in Middlesex, and I started work with a local firm. I worked for someone who dealt with Matrimonial and Civil Litigation. I didn’t like him very much as he came back from lunch red-faced and smelling of drink. He could be bad-tempered and often shouted. Once, when I had to go to Uxbridge County Court with Counsel on a custody hearing, I had to take notes in shorthand. The wife had a repetitive action syndrome, where she would continually wash her hands, and the husband was seeking custody of the children. My boss came into my room 15 minutes after I had returned to the office as he wanted a transcript of the proceedings. He asked ‘Where are the Statements?’ When I told him I had only just got back he started shouting and said ‘Get them out within the next half hour’. I said it was impossible and would take at least two hours, to which he replied ‘Rubbish’. Needless to say, I left this firm a short while later!

I moved to another firm in Staines, a ‘one man’ practice called Rigby Golding & Co., Mr Rigby being the sole practitioner. He dealt with Conveyancing, but mainly Probate. There were two Secretaries and our nickname for him was ‘Riga mortis’, not only because he was slow but also because sometimes when a client came in to make a will, he or she died a short while after! At this time electric typewriters and dictating machines began to appear on the scene, which made life a lot easier!

In the early 1970s we moved to South Ascot and I went to work for one of the Senior Partners of Campbell Hooper & Austin Wright at their branch in Sunningdale. It was one of the most interesting firms that I worked for, but my boss was very disorganised. There were files and papers in disarray everywhere. However, I found it a challenge and soon had everything in tip-top order. We had some very interesting clients – Brian Forbes, the film producer (whose next door neighbour was Elton John), Diana Dors (England’s equivalent to Marilyn Monroe), Leapy Lee and Junior Campbell who were pop stars of the day, and Francis Day who was a very famous singer of the 1940s. We also acted for a Saudi Arabian Prince who had a large residence in Sunningdale. By this time, I was a very accomplished secretary, and got on very well with my boss. We made some good and lasting friends in the area and had a great social life.

I left this firm in 1973 to have my second child and a short time later we moved to the West Country. My first taste of legal life in Devon was with a large firm of Solicitors in Exeter. I worked for one of the Senior Partners who specialised in Roman Catholic Ecclesiastical law and had clients in very high positions. As you can imagine, this was something very different!

I also worked for another firm in Exeter – now one of the largest in the South West, and they were all lovely people. I started with them as a temp but was asked to stay on permanently, working for a recently qualified female Solicitor (the first woman Solicitor I had ever worked for), who dealt with Civil Litigation. I often went to Court with her and I had my own junior working for me. It was whilst working there that I first got to grips with using a computer. My goodness, what a revolution that has proved to be!

Eventually we moved to Cornwall by the sea and, apart from a brief spell in London when I worked for a large firm in the City, I gave up working and concentrated on my art. During my career I had the opportunity to work in many different firms and various areas of law. I saw a revolution in the office from ‘steam driven’ typewriters and pre-historic photo-copying machines (that took up half a room), to computers and their magical software, printers, fax machines and the convenience of e-mails.

I thoroughly enjoyed my career as a Legal Secretary and am grateful to it as, if I hadn’t gone down that path, I wouldn’t have met my husband and have the lovely family that I have today.

Ann Stacey-Hibbert is a member of The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs in Bristol, England which has been helping people with their legal secretarial careers since 1990. The Institute was originally founded to promote the excellence and professional recognition of Legal Secretaries and PAs.

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