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In approximately the 8th century B.C., the Greek poet Homer said, “The journey is the thing.” That is evident when we look back and consider what got us from where we were to now.
Recently, I found an old secretary’s manual from 1975. This is from the days of manual typewriters, before the invention of the fax machine and personal computers on desks and in nearly everyone’s homes and pockets. This manual was put together as the paralegal profession was coming into demand.1 The newest information in this book included the proper use of zip codes and two-letter abbreviations for the states. What still applies is basic information on office procedures, record keeping, grammar usage, letter writing, and using correct forms of address.2
According to the Complete Secretary’s Handbook, the basics of running an office smoothly are to treat people the way you want to be treated, to work towards polishing your skills, to stay up to date, and to be proud to be in a field that expects excellence.2 All of this advice still applies today.
The Handbook explained what to do and what not to do for every situation and task. There are chapters on your first job, the level of formality of the office, proper etiquette in the office such as avoiding gossip and no smoking at the desk. (!!!) There were explanations on the tickler file system and follow-up files. (Now we use Microsoft Outlook, a docket system, or our phones.)
There are many chapters that are still relevant today, such as how to receive callers and visitors, filing systems, and how to index and alpha file. There are some interesting chapters like how to oil and protect your typewriter as well as how to use carbon paper. Another chapter that is still useful today has a postal guide, discusses handling incoming and outgoing mail, and includes directions on telephone personality and efficiency. There is even a chapter on managing telegraph and cable communications.2
Surprisingly, there is a section on how to prepare legal papers with figures. The author offers detailed information on how to use legal backing paper, law blanks and carbons, and precisely how original carbons had to be signed. There is a chapter on how to write numbers, amounts, and dates. Clear instructions are provided on how to copy—even with specifics of how to handle errors for a “true and exact” document. The secretary would need to underline incorrect letters and add “[sic]” after incorrect phrases. There are exact instructions on how to type introductory and closing phrases and how to type legal citations. It is explained that it is more important to get the citation numbers right than the names of the parties because the citations could then be looked up later. (Today, citations must be exact and complete.) More details on legal document preparation included how to type acknowledgments for notaries public and witness clauses and pictures of how to type headings on court papers. The goal is for the secretary to type legal documents in a “professional manner” which was “especially useful for a secretary who is a notary public.”2
The NALS Basic Manual for the Lawyer’s Assistant covers all the topics listed in the 1975 secretary’s manual and more. It is truly an up-to-date guide of correct office procedures. There are chapters on law office management, accounting, ethics, computer information systems, legal research and writing, the courts and administrative agencies, and trial preparation. There are also chapters on various areas of law and career development.3
What is universal? Professionalism and good manners.
You should present yourself properly at work, that is, be well groomed, clean, and wear appropriate dress, i.e., no cleavage, crop-tops, or flip-flops. It is important to pay attention to the “dress code.” That does not mean spend a lot of money; it means find your best color and build a modest wardrobe to wear to work. Wear clean, pressed, conservative clothes and shoes in the office. Be sure your hair is groomed and makeup is neutral, not flashy. Think of it this way—you are trying to instill confidence in the firm with your client, and each person represents the whole firm. This includes how you conduct yourself at all times and how you interact with your coworkers and clients.
What is different? Skills. More skills are needed now.
Today, administrative and legal assistants have much more expected of them than in the past. We were told that computers would make our jobs easier. We now know that computers have increased our workload a lot! Proofreading is a skill that will never go out of style because computers cannot do everything. Although computers are capable of recording and typing conversations, the English language has so many nuances that it is impossible for voice recognition technology to capture these subtleties.
Administrative duties have grown with technology. Not only does an administrative or legal professional need to be an expert in proofreading, but also an expert in writing, grammar, accounting, purchasing, travel, financial management, and training others—while also building their own skills.
The fastest way to gain the skills needed and build your expertise is to join a professional organization and work within that organization. You will get out of it what you put into it. Consider it an investment. Meet everyone you can, go to all the classes, read everything about your field, and take advantage of the opportunities to build your career. Many professional organizations promote education and are connected to colleges, universities, and trade schools. Many have online education programs and some are free for members. Through networking you will meet many people who are in the same situation as you. There are also mentors available for persons new in the field.
Camille Goff, a retired executive secretary from Dallas, Texas, reports that the best advice she ever got was to “learn everything you can about your chosen profession. It will make your job and your life easier, and it will be a fantastic journey.”4 Although there have been some inevitable changes in our administrative and legal work details, experiencing these changes has been fantastic, and hopefully there will be more exciting changes and experiences to share with others in the field in the future.
About the Author
Allison Streepey, B.A., CRS, PLS, is the Business Administrator for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Office of Educational Development. She has over 15 years’ experience in pre- and post-award research grants administration and in serving as the Senior Grants Administrator for the UAMS Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. She also served as an IRB Administrator in the Institutional Review Board office for the protection of human subjects. Her current legal experience involves federal and state grants and contracts, employment law, and federal research grants administration. Allison is thrilled to be a member of NALS Editorial Board and enjoys reading all the articles and writing.
1. McCabe, S.M. (2007), A Brief History of the Paralegal Profession. Found at http://www.michbar.org/journal/pdf/ pdf4article1177.pdf
2. Doris, L. and Miller, B.M. (1975), Complete Secretary’s Handbook (Third Ed.), Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
3. NALS…the association for legal professionals. (2013), Basic Manual for the Lawyer’s Assistant (12th Ed.), West Publishing, Eagan, M.N.
4. C. Goff on the best advice she ever got (personal communication, October 25, 2014)w A
© Copyright 2015 NALS. This article was originally published in the NALS magazine, The NALS Docket.