As law firms downsized, not only were attorneys let go, but support staff were given their walking papers also. The elimination of support staff meant many legal secretaries found themselves out of a job.
Legal secretaries are a valuable resource. As more and more technically skilled lawyers enter the workforce, are legal secretaries becoming obsolete? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010 – 2011 Edition indicates that the projection for administrative assistants and secretaries is expected to increase by 11% between 2008 and 2018, and “moderate growth in legal services is projected to lead to faster than average growth in employment of legal secretaries.” The BLS estimates a projected increase of 18% in legal secretaries (311,000 employment data) by the year 2018 from 2008 (262,600 employment data for legal secretaries). Legal secretaries are highly beneficial.
Tap Into Your Legal Secretary’s Skills
To get the most out of your legal secretary (L.S.), as an employer, you must utilize the L.S. to his/her full potential and challenge your L.S. A number of L.S. have a broad spectrum of experience, education and skills that the employer never really taps into. Most L.S. have much more than the required skills for the job. Probably more L.S., than not, want the opportunity to prove that they can do more than type, draft basic communication, enter attorney time, scan documents, answer the phone, make copies, etc. (These skills are highly valuable and useful.)
Once the attorney becomes aware or knowledgeable about the added skills the L.S. can provide, he/she should challenge the L.S. by assigning more meaningful (and challenging) responsibilities. (Be sure to communicate with your L.S. since this presumably means more work probably at the same level of pay – until raise time, of course.)
Law firms should cross train its L.S. in other capacities – paralegal work, I.T. support, word processing support, project coordinator, content management, litigation support, etc. Having other avenues in which to effectively utilize the L.S. helps to increase productivity and enables the firm to get the most out of its L.S. Even though firms have moved to a 2:1, 3:1 or even 4:1 attorney to secretary ratio, that may not be enough or be productive.
Increased Attorney to Secretary Ratios Can be Counterproductive
In cases where a L.S. may support one or two partners and an associate or two, associates may feel that the L.S. doesn’t have the time to handle their work, and the associate ends up doing the work. Assigning several attorneys to one secretary can present an impression (in the mind of other attorneys) that the secretary won’t get to my work (at least in the timeframe that the attorney needs it). Having attorney to secretary ratios of 3:1, 4:1 or even 5:1 can prove counterproductive. Secretaries may either be too busy to handle the workload of all the assigned attorneys or sit idle waiting on something to do. When you have an associate with a billable rate of $175, and he/she has to constantly make the copies (or perform other duties that the L.S. should be handling) because the L.S. can’t get to it – that’s counterproductive; when the L.S. sits idle (because the associate doesn’t give him/her work) that’s counterproductive.
A L.S. can provide legal and administrative support in a number of ways. It is up to the firm to make the most of the resources it has.