And the Survey Says … (A Look into the Evolving Role of the Legal Secretary)


And the Survey Says … (A Look into the Evolving Role of the Legal Secretary)

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By Tami Schiller, Traveling Coaches

Traveling Coaches was on hand for the 2012 ALA (Association of Legal Administrators) annual conference.  Our very own Joe Buser presented in the Business Matters! sessions track.  He talked about evolving law firm models calling for new legal secretary work flows and skill sets.  Always  interested in what our firms’ administrators have to say and inspired by Joe’s topic, this year we conducted a short survey to find out exactly what’s on their minds when it comes to the changing role of the legal secretary.

The survey was presented to visitors at the Traveling Coaches booth.  Altogether, 102 conference attendees participated in the online survey.  Of course we wanted to have some fun with our survey and try something new, so representatives in the exhibit floor booth leveraged the use of iPads to facilitate the survey. The following is a summary of what we learned when we contemplated the responses.

How big of a concern is the changing role of the legal secretary at your firm?

The big question on our mind these days and, frankly, many of our clients’ minds, is how concerned are firms about the changing role of the secretary?  The survey says that they are plenty concerned.  Seventy percent of the respondents have a high or very high concern about the changing role of secretaries in their firm.


Secretary-to-Lawyer Ratio

We were also curious to see how the secretary-to-lawyer ratio played a role.  The majority of responses (56%) maintain a 1: 3 ratio, followed by 20% who selected the 1:4 ratio.  A lucky 15% still enjoy a 1:2 ratio.  Two participants selected the 1:5 ratio and one selected the 1:6 ratio options.  This question allowed for additional comments.  A couple of the responses intrigued me.  One firm does not have secretaries. Instead they utilize paralegals as lawyer support (I wonder what their billable requirements look like). Another shared that the ratios vary depending on workload and type of law.  Personally, I liked that one the best.  It is rare to find any two lawyers who work exactly the same that can guarantee the right mix of tasks for a shared secretarial assignment.

Managing the Secretary Workload

With roles changing and ratios increasing, who is managing the secretary’s workload?  Forty-nine percent responded that the lawyers are managing the work.  Just less than 30% indicated that someone in HR was managing secretarial work, followed by approximately 19% utilizing a secretarial manager for the task.  This was another question where we included an option for sharing other responses.  Most responses still fell into the administrative category of office or legal administrators, but some surprised me, like business managers.  I’ll have to explore that role further one of these days.

If we look at the same data by ratios, as the ratios increase in the number of assigned lawyers to each secretary, the more likely it is that someone in a human resources or administrative position is managing workloads.  As a side note, with only three respondents selecting the 1:5 or 1:6 ratio selection, we are only looking at the top three ratios right now. Respondents were allowed to pick all options that applied to their firm so numbers may not add up to 100%.


What tasks do your secretaries perform on a daily basis for their assigned lawyers?

We provided a list of common tasks and asked our respondents to select the top five tasks. The top five tasks for all responses:

  1. Type/Format documents
  2. Schedule meetings
  3. Submit electric filings
  4. Maintain client files
  5. Maintain calendar

The bottom 5 included tasks, such as:

  1. Open mail
  2. Prepare client bills
  3. Create and edit PowerPoint presentations
  4. Conduct internet research
  5. Create graphs and charts

Next, we set out to compare tasks across the three most common ratios selected by the survey respondents (1:2, 1:3, 1:4).  Typing and formatting documents is number 1 across all three, and then things shuffle around a bit.  Interestingly, two historically common tasks, drafting documents and communicating with clients,  move down the list as ratios increase.


In focus groups, when asked what they would like to be able to do for their assigned lawyers, secretaries often tell us that they would like to be able to do more electronic filing and internet research to help their lawyer’s workload.  Lawyers tell us that they like to get help from their secretaries with presentations.  It appears that there are some communication gaps to fill for secretaries to express the desire to take on more challenging work and the need to develop new technology skills development beyond Microsoft Word.

My firm has already taken steps to address the changing role of the legal secretary.

Slightly less than 60% of respondents say their firms are already beginning to address the changing role of the legal secretary.  We asked those respondents to help us understand what steps they are taking. 40% have defined or are in the process of defining new core competencies.  35% have either conducted or are planning to conduct skills assessment.  Mentoring programs have been established or are in the works for 15%.  Another 15% have changed their staffing models to include new roles like junior secretaries which are based on levels of expertise.  Five percent are looking at certification programs.  Another respondent shared that they are looking to implement secretarial teams for some practice areas or teams of lawyers.

One thing is for certain: Things are changing and we have much to consider and discuss as we navigate through these changes.  If you are a member of CLASSclub, Joe Buser will give an encore presentation of his ALA educational session, “New Technology Competencies to Address the Evolving Role of Legal Secretaries.” So be sure to watch for that date which will be published soon!  As always if you want to talk more about the topic, you can leave comments here or find us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.  We also have an email address dedicated to all things at Next Generation Learning.  Just email us at

Tami Schiller is Senior Analyst and Consultant for Traveling Coaches.

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