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The main duties of legal secretaries used to be taking shorthand, transcribing dictated documents and entering the hours billed by their attorneys into time-sheets. But technology is rapidly transforming the legal business, and what it means to be a legal secretary.
Odile Arregui has been a legal secretary for 30 years and now works at Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre, LLP. She says technology has “absolutely” brought about a shift in secretaries’ duties. She remembers one of the first technological advancements was the introduction of the word processor in the early 1980s, vanquishing the manual typewriter and carbon paper.
Later, computer networks made sharing forms much easier, Arregui says. For example, a program called Wordmill enables secretaries to access and fill out various subpoena forms and print them out. “Before, we had to track down the forms from the courts, type them out and use carbon paper.”
Secretaries use digital scanners, she says, to place pictures and graphics into the text of briefs they file. A document that once meant feeding paper into a fax machine for an hour or more can now go via e-mail in a matter of minutes.
Arregui says the biggest change in the past few years has been an influx of young attorneys who do a lot of their own typing and transcribing. “We foresee a dramatic change in the use of legal secretaries in the future,” Arregui says.
But despite these shifts, lawyers still value the basics — fast typing and a strong work ethic. The most valuable legal secretary, they say, is one with a balance of high-tech and typing skills.
Shorthand may have gone the way of the manual typewriter, but the ability to type 70 words per minute or more is still a big requirement, says Terry Gonzales, coordinator of the legal secretary certificate program at Delgado Community College. Gonzales recalls that one recent graduate, a top student, attained 100% accuracy on her typing test at a law firm but could reach only 62 words per minute. The firm would not hire her until she was able to type 70 words per minute.
Delgado’s program, which began in 1999 at the prompting of the legal community, does not teach any computer skills other than advanced word processing.
“For a certificate program we were limited to a certain number of hours, and we could just pick the courses that we thought were the most necessary ones,” says Gonzales. However, “it goes without saying that our students benefit if they know Excel and spreadsheet applications.” They can get these skills in the two-year associates office administration program offered at Delgado and other local colleges, she says.
Often, secretaries gain computer skills on the job, through programs offered from legal secretaries’ groups or through their employer. Adams & Reese, LLP, for example, has a training division that keeps both lawyers and other staff up to speed on the latest equipment and software.
Many attorneys are communicating more directly with clients via email and not relying as heavily
on their secretaries to correspond on their behalf.
Bill Kelly, partner with Adams & Reese, says every time the firm gets a new software program the firm’s staff trainer offers beginning, intermediate and advanced classes on how to use it. Adams & Reese recently rolled out Microsoft Outlook as its calendar, e-mail and contact management program, and most secretaries and lawyers were trained on that. Currently, the firm is in the process of converting from “an all-Macintosh to an all-PC/IBM shop,” which has kept the trainer busy.
Kelly says, in some ways, technology has made lawyers less dependent on their secretaries. E-mail, for instance, helps lawyers keep constant and direct contact with clients, whereas secretaries used to serve as the liaison.
“Now the clients seem to expect that we will respond to an e-mail ourselves. … It not only changes the nature of the communication but how quickly we need to get it out,” Kelly says. “Unless the lawyer is using the secretary to type e-mails for him or her, the lawyer has more transcription duties than ever before, and I think that’s e-mail’s fault.”
Like Arregui, Kelly says the newest generation of attorneys tend to be more comfortable with computers, and often take on a large share of transcribing duties themselves. Kelly says that as lawyers get more comfortable with technology, legal staff jobs might dwindle, but he has not seen that trend yet. Usually one secretary is assigned to two or more attorneys, but that is a standard practice that has been going on for many years.
In fact, job prospects for legal secretaries in New Orleans are excellent right now, says Alison Zeller Sturz, a legal secretary at Montgomery, Barnett, Brown, Read, Hammond & Mintz, LLP, and corresponding secretary for Legal Secretaries of New Orleans and the River Region. She says salaries are typically better at downtown firms than they are in the suburbs. “I’ve heard rumors about starting salaries in the high 30s.”
Legal secretary careers continue to be prevalent with an abundance of job openings nationwide.
Starting salaries for legal secretaries are usually in the low to mid-20s, with a handful of exceptions, says Gonzales. She notes that those who go into the program come from diverse backgrounds: Some are young people without college degrees and some are older people who are looking for a career change. Most are women, though each graduating class from the Delgado program typically includes a man or two.
One of the best things about a career as a legal secretary is that it is stable and reliable, says Devry Shuart, co-owner of Shuart & Associates, Inc., a legal placement firm. Shuart says there has been strong demand for legal secretaries for the past five years. “A good legal secretary can always find a job,” she says.
But they should expect a demanding work environment, says Hope Taormina, a legal secretary with McCloskey Langenstein & Stoller, LLP and president of statewide organization Louisiana Legal Secretaries Inc.
“All the technology has put more stress on our lives,” she says, because it enables secretaries to do more work in a smaller time frame.