Teamwork and the Changing Role of Legal Secretaries

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01Feb2018

Teamwork and the Changing Role of Legal Secretaries

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By Fran McClean, PLS

secretary

WHAT IS TEAMWORK?

Teamwork is the ability to work together towards a common vision  It is less “me” and more “we.” Teamwork improves efficiencies and manages workflows. It also builds camaraderie, which makes a cohesive unit. Teamwork affords an opportunity to meet and work with new lawyers, paralegals, and other staff. You learn how to solve problems as a group or work team.

UNDERSTAND TEAMWORK AND BE CLEAR ON EXPECTATIONS

All team members should know the expected behavior required for “teamwork.”

  • Always discuss and document specific examples of teamwork activity that the team members expect of each other.
  • Never presume that everyone is on the same wavelength and that a common understanding of teamwork exists.
  • Hold all team players personally responsible for doing the things discussed at meetings. The team clearly needs to understand teamwork.

WHY IS TEAMWORK IMPORTANT IN THE LEGAL FIELD?

Teamwork is the fuel that allows for superlative results. Timekeepers still maintain an individual assignment, but secretarial teams allow for coverage for personal and vacation time and the ability to handle overflow work. Teamwork among timekeepers and secretaries builds trust and improves communication. Team members work more efficiently because they know the timekeeper’s practice area and their expectations.

TEAMWORK AND APPRECIATION

As times and technology change, it is still the personal touches that are most meaningful—saying thank you is important. People feel proud when the value of their work is reaffirmed by others. Sincere recognition helps to strengthen a positive relationship between employees and their managers/supervisors. Employees do not quit jobs or companies—they quit supervisors. Show appreciation for a person’s good work and the good work will most likely be repeated. The faster you can reinforce a person’s good work so that it becomes a habit, the sooner you will prevent someone from straying off course and causing problems.

TEAMWORK AND THE ROLE OF THE LEGAL SECRETARY

Individual secretaries or assistants will most likely support a larger group of lawyers. The traditional time-consuming tasks such as transcribing, typing, revising documents, and filing will require much less time. A legal secretary’s most valuable asset will be his or her organizational and technological skills. Primary support for a lawyer and operating as an extension of that lawyer in the delivery of legal services in the future will need to be a part of a cohesive team such as a “Client Service Team.”

WHAT IS A CLIENT SERVICE TEAM?

A Client Service Team is comprised of partners, associates, paralegals, and secretaries who meet on a regular basis to discuss clients and their needs. Other attributes are listed below.

  • Involves a group of skilled staff members assigned to support a group of attorneys and paralegals.
  • Share best practices and find out how to win top client satisfaction ratings.
  • Establish measurable goals in client satisfaction, revenue growth, practice group introductions, and meetings with client executives.
  • Within such a team, one person focuses on technical production skills, one on communication skills, and one on administrative skills, such as reviewing projects, setting priorities, and establishing time frames.

THE CHANGING ROLE OF LEGAL SECRETARIES

The legal secretary’s job responsibilities and requirements have significantly changed due to advancements in technology and heightened client expectations. The existing and inevitably growing shortage of legal secretaries will heavily impact the delivery of legal services to clients in the future. The next generation of the most critical lawyer staff support personnel—perhaps a Client Service Coordinator—would guide the Client Service Team in meeting client and firm objectives.

The role of the legal secretary is changing because it will continue to be redirected from a career centered around document production towards a career in which time and project management, together with increased knowledge of technology, are more critical. Some of these changes including the following:

  • Use of voice recognition software to send dictation directly to a computer network.
  • Direct distribution of documents by attorneys to clients, using fax and/or email.
  • Use of cell phones, the Internet, wireless modems, and fax machines allow attorneys to do their “own work” at any time, from any location.
  • Use of laptops enable lawyers to take the law office to the client’s office, making the client more of a partner in the preparation of legal work.
  • “Hoteling” concepts allow lawyers and  paralegals to work from their clients’ offices or from remote mini offices.
  • Integrated databases that contain client and billing information.
  • Digital scanning, imaging, document management and assembly systems, electronic litigation support systems, electronic scheduling and timekeeping systems, and case and matter management systems.
  • Continued outsourcing of law firm support—copying, faxing, mail room, reception duties, records management, housekeeping, and supplies.

“LEGAL SECRETARY” JOB TITLE WILL BE CHANGED

The term “legal secretary” has acquired a negative connotation. It is no longer accurate as a description of a position/person who fits the demands of emerging needs.

The job title should reflect more accurately the current and future job responsibilities. Many lawyers are opting to refer to their secretaries as their “assistants”—that the person is assisting the firm and serving the client. They regard their secretary as their assistant, their teammate, and their aide-de-camp, someone who can complement their strengths and fill in their weaknesses.

A career path for current top level legal secretaries with good communication and organizational skills could be designated as a “Client Service Coordinator.” This enhanced position will take advantage of technology and create a competitive and desirable career track.

IN THE FUTURE, WHAT WILL EMPLOYERS LOOK FOR IN AN ASSISTANT?

The majority of employers will want these characteristics:

  • Intelligence and initiative
  • Professional, reliable, team player
  • Exercises good judgment
  • Trustworthy
  • Possesses advanced computer skills—word processing and scheduling
  • Organizational skills—can recognize what needs attention and when
  • Excellent presentation on the phone, in person, and in the work product—customer service skills
  • Prioritize, be efficient and accurate
  • Be able to handle follow-up
  • Can anticipate needs and is willing to assume responsibility
  • Handle client calls and prepare basic drafts—do paralegal-type work

GROOMING THE NEXT GENERATION

Effectively grooming the next generation is imperative to future success and retention of rising stars. If firms do not take the initiative to create cultures and devise management styles for millennials, they will miss out on a generation of workers who can be highly productive, loyal, and great relationship builders with clients. From a young age, millennials have participated in team sports, group activities, and play groups. They value teamwork and eagerly seek the input of many. They are part of a no-person-left-behind generation, and they are willing to fight for what is “fair.” They share a generational personality that covets teamwork, self-worth, and technology. As a generation of driven perfectionists, millennials want to ensure their work is done correctly, as well as receive praise and be appreciated. Praise and reassurance push millennials to work harder and produce better quality work.

IN SUMMARY

Teamwork will be important in the changing role of the legal secretary. The ability to work together as a team will determine which law firms will be successful in the twenty-first century. Recognition is a viable part of the inner workings of a law firm because the team takes pride in what they are doing, wants to establish trust between themselves and their attorneys, and are team players who realize the benefits of a good working relationship.

This article was orignally published on the NALS website.

Fran McClean, PLS, is a member of NALS, the association for legal professionals, and a member of NALS of Northeast Ohio. She is also the secretarial support services manager at Thompson Hine LLP in Cleveland, Ohio.

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