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 still a valuable resource, but 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 and are not becoming obsolete; however, they might be underutilized.
Tap Into Your Legal Secretary’s Skills
To get the most out of your legal secretary, you must utilize the secretary to his/her full potential and challenge him/her. A number of legal secretaries have a broad spectrum of experience, education and skills that the employer never really taps into. Most legal secretaries have much more than the required skills for the job. Probably more legal secretaries, than not, want the opportunity to prove that they can do more than what the attorney assigns.
Once the attorney becomes aware or knowledgeable about the added skills and/or capabilities that the legal secretary can provide, he/she should challenge the legal secretary by assigning more meaningful (and challenging) responsibilities. (Be sure to communicate with your legal secretary since this presumably means more work probably at the same level of pay – until raise time, of course.) Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. Get to know your legal secretary and tap into his/her full potential. Doing so will not only make the attorney more productive, but will keep the secretary busy and challenged. Ultimately this will lead to a rewarding and satisfying relationship for both the attorney and the secretary.
It is important that law firms cross train secretaries in other functions (e.g., paralegal work, I.T. support, word processing support, project coordinator, content management, litigation support). Having other avenues in which to effectively utilize the secretary helps to increase productivity and enables the firm to get the most out of the secretary. A number of firms have moved to a 2:1, 3:1 or even 4:1 attorney to secretary ratio; however, this may not be enough or even prove productive.
Increased Attorney to Secretary Ratios Can be Counterproductive
In cases where a legal secretary may support one or two partners and an associate or two, the associate may feel that the secretary does not have the time to handle his/her work. As a result, the associate likely ends up doing the work in which the secretary should be doing. Assigning several attorneys to one secretary can present an impression (in the mind of other attorneys) that the secretary wouldn’t be able to get to the attorney’s work (at least in the time frame 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 (in this case, it is probably because each attorney assumes the secretary is busy and won’t give her much work). When you have an attorney with a billable rate of hundred of dollars, and he/she has to constantly make the copies, get the files or perform other related secretarial duties that is counterproductive. When the secretary sits idle because the associate doesn’t give the secretary enough work that is counterproductive.