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The word “Secretary” is derived from the Latin word secrenere meaning “to distinguish” or “to set apart” and the passive participle (secretum) meaning “having been set apart,” with the eventual connotation of something private or confidential. Therefore, a Secretarius was a person overseeing business confidentially, usually for a powerful individual (a King, Pope, etc).
The secretarial profession is one of the oldest professions that ever existed, though we cannot tell the precise date the profession came into existence. History has it that it predates 1868, being the year Christopher Latham Sholes, a U.S. mechanical engineer, invented the first practical modern typewriter, and that for centuries the profession was dominated by educated, economically lower-class males, until 1873, when young women were employed into the profession to demonstrate the typewriting machines produced by E. Remington and Sons. This demonstration brought about the eventual takeover of the profession and consequent association with females.
Epochal transformations in the profession began in the 1950s when it (or “Business Education” as it was then called) migrated into colleges and universities, a development which brought about sweeping changes in technologies in the business world and now E-commerce, which has caused a move-away from traditional secretarial skills to office automation and ICT, accounting programs, court reporting programs, paralegal training, administrative training, legal (secretarial) programs and medical (secretarial) programs, etc.
There are various professional bodies in existence today, some of which are self-restricting. However, Legal Secretaries and Legal PAs are skillfully trained and can consequently fit into almost any organization since law, as it were, touches almost all aspects of human life. A Legal Secretary or Legal PA is experienced in working for law firms or in-house legal departments, assists in giving administrative support to lawyers and is a significant member of a team of professionals who work together. They will have a sound knowledge of the law and deal with a wide range of challenging legal and business issues, combining their skills with modern technology. They will efficiently manages their bosses’ time by scheduling appointments and managing conferences and travel arrangements. The best Legal Secretaries or Legal PAs have the ability to anticipate their employer’s needs and take care of them before they are asked to do so. Usually, I consider these as the conceptual skills which distinguish the Legal Secretary or Legal PA from traditional Secretary; proficient in typing, filing, answering the telephone, attending to customers/clients, with a good command of English, etc.
Secretaries generally are expected to possess excellent organizational and management skills, tact, diplomacy, discretion, good customer service and interpersonal skills, initiative, effective communication skills, ability to maintain confidentiality in sensitive matters and display excellent judgment. They must be intelligent, smart, versatile, loyal and dependable, and the ability to work independently is especially important for higher-level administrative positions.
The legal secretarial profession is indeed the distinguished profession in that all professions are regulated by law, and you are not just a Secretary or PA but a Legal Secretary or Legal PA – double honor! This accounts for why no government, institution, corporation or organization ever functions effectively without a Secretary. It accounts for why the first appointment almost all newly installed governments make is that of the Secretary. You know what? Out of the 44 Presidents the United States has produced, 25 were lawyers. This is not to say other disciplines are not as equally important, but reveals how pivotal our chosen profession is and the enviable heights it can take us to, provided we remain collected and focused.
Undoubtedly, Legal Secretaries and Legal PAs are now key players in major corporations and organizations globally with enormous responsibilities. Consequently, the onus is on us to distinguish ourselves in our various organizations by discharging our duties creditably. We must stick to the rules and do things professionally. We must make ourselves a reference point, not just to preserve our jobs or gain promotions, etc., but dignify our profession and noble institution. Let’s thus be guided as we set our personal developmental goals.
What am I saying? I went to a law firm, few days ago, to transact business on behalf of my boss, and upon arriving there I met the Managing Partner (MP) in a meeting with his staff. There I was seated in the MP’s lounge waiting, when suddenly I heard the MP yell at one of the staff, “but you are qualified while she is not, so you should know better!” Immediately it dawned on me that when you say you are a professional in your chosen career, people see and view everything you do in that light. They expect you to exhibit certain characteristics and qualities worthy of a professional, hence my submission that wherever we are, and whatever we do, we must not just aim to keep our jobs and gain promotions in our various organizations, but protect the dignity of our profession and noble institution, for therein shall we have even greater recognition. If we can distinguish ourselves as Legal Secretaries and Legal PAs to the admiration of all around us, we shall get to enviable heights we have never dreamt of because we are indeed the products of the distinguished profession.
See you at the top!
This article originally appeared in Dedicated, the online magazine of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and Legal PAs, in Bristol, England.