Adopting New Approaches for Today’s Legal Secretary
The role of the legal secretary has changed dramatically in recent years. As attorneys have become more self-sufficient and client demands for efficiency have increased, firms have adopted alternative secretarial models.
Mary Kate Sheridan, JD
Writer, Editor and Lawyer
“Legal secretaries remain a very important part of the client-support process,” says Petrice Ryan, Director of Business Operations at Paul Hastings LLP. “The role has evolved as attorney needs — and frankly attorney technology skills — have evolved. A successful legal secretary must demonstrate the ability to adapt, be flexible, continuously meet the demands of practice-specific and technology knowledge and skills and the ability to navigate firm culture.”
With the changing needs of the modern lawyer, law firms should consider the best ways to optimize their support professionals. This article will discuss some reasons behind the evolving legal secretary role, potential alternative approaches, and advice for successfully implementing a new model.
FACTORS BEHIND THE EVOLVING LEGAL SECRETARY ROLE
Among the areas that have influenced the role of the legal secretary are technology, a changing workforce, and cost savings.
Without a doubt, technology has been the biggest influence on the reshaping of the legal secretary role.
“It has completely changed the dynamic,” says Jennifer Hill, President at JHill’s Staffing Services, a division of Marcum Search. “It started in 2007 with the invention of the smartphone or the iPhone. … Up until that point you didn’t have round-the-clock availability. … All of a sudden, everyone was accessible at the touch of the button. Then skills began to shift.”
With an array of technological tools at their fingertips and proficiency to boot, the new generation of lawyers is far more self-sufficient and willing to handle tasks that previously would have been delegated to a secretary.
“The role has changed so dramatically over the past, at least, four to five years with the onset of all of the technology that’s being introduced,” says Gera Vaz, Consultant at SB2 Consultants LLC. “You have really tech-savvy associates coming into the workforce, and what we’re finding is a lot of the work legal secretaries are doing now is really more administrative in nature.”
Another reason for the changing legal secretary role is the pool of available secretaries has diminished.
“Finding qualified people for these jobs can be difficult,” says Ryan. “For whatever reason, these particular jobs are not viewed in the way they used to be. In truth, these are great, challenging jobs that pay well, but finding the right people for these jobs is challenging.”
With clients being even more conscious of billable hours, the need to create systems that promote greater efficiency and cost effectiveness has permeated the legal world.
“There was certainly an effort 10 years ago to do a reduction in force as a cost-saving measure,” says Joe Buser, Vice President of Strategic Accounts at Traveling Coaches.
And given that attorneys are no longer using legal secretaries in the same ways, their time may be better maximized through an alternative model that provides a steady workflow of appropriate assignments.
“The old economics just don’t work anymore,” says J. Mark Santiago, Partner at SB2 Consultants LLC. “You can’t have a secretary sitting there to waste 10 to 20 to 30 percent of time doing things that are better done by others. Clients won’t allow it; the economic squeeze on law firms continues, and it doesn’t serve the firm either.”
MODERN APPROACHES TO THE LEGAL SECRETARY ROLE
Due to the above factors, the traditional one-to-one legal secretary model is no longer ideal. Below are some alternative approaches.
In modifying the legal secretary role, many firms have embraced a team model through which a a group of legal secretaries supports a number of attorneys.
Paul Hastings has found success with its teaming model, which is staffed with what that the firm calls “Client Service Specialists” or “CSS.” While partners at the firm are still assigned to a specific CSS, associates and paralegals are supported by the entire CSS team. According to Ryan, attorneys can request assistance via email, via telephone, or in person, and any available CSS on the team can take the assignment.
“We’re just looking for the easiest and best way to get the work done and support the attorneys and clients the best way we can,” says Ryan.
Critical to the success of this model is having the CSS team sit together to encourage team communication.
“Much of teaming is dependent on the teams being together so they can communicate effectively,” says Ryan. “Collaboration is key. So we try to sit our CSS teams together so they can continuously communicate with each other and collaborate on projects and assignments. Direct communication to one another and with the attorneys is key to the team’s success.”
Additionally, resource team leads provide oversight to the CSS teams. Responsibilities include assisting with resource allocation, workflow coordination, managing coverage, and coordinating time off among the team members.
Another firm that has executed a successful secretarial team model is Irell & Manella LLP. The firm tackled the new approach by starting with its most junior attorneys.
“On the attorney side, we found that the absolute best thing to do was take a strategic and not a tactical view of this and make the change with our youngest attorneys,” says Robert Cramer, a Consultant and former Director of Human Resources at Irell. “They’re digitally proficient in most cases. They’ve never had a secretary before. You take those folks when they walk through the door, and [as] they graduate up, that’s the model they’ve known and understood.”
The firm has found that the desire to use the centers has occurred organically, but Irell partners who prefer working with a designated secretary still can.
“It’s transitional and something all firms have to work through,” says Cramer.
One variation to the team model is to staff each team with secretaries of differing specialties or experience levels.
For example, firms may establish secretarial service with legal secretaries of varying levels of expertise, including entry-level assistants who will focus on more administrative tasks and experienced legal secretaries who can focus on more intensive tasks like e-filing, says Vaz.
Indeed, a more specialized assignment system for legal secretaries can enhance efficiency.
“Anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of legal-secretary time is spent on things that you don’t need their experience and training to do,” says Santiago. “If you can pull that out, you enable the senior legal secretaries — who are highly skilled people — to do that highly skilled work.”
While the team method may work for most attorneys, it isn’t necessarily the best model for all, especially senior partners who heavily rely on a secretary. Some firms use a hybrid approach that institutes a team secretarial model, while allowing direct secretary assignments for the most senior attorneys who heavily rely on them.
“There are some partners who can keep an individual secretary busy, and it’s integral to their practice,” says Santiago. “The program needs to be flexible enough to recognize that but also move the firm towards this new model.”
TIPS FOR SUCCESSFULLY MANAGING THE CHANGING LEGAL SECRETARY ROLE
Before a firm moves forward with a new secretarial model, it must create a plan.
“Consistency and communication: those are probably the two things that would be my advice for anyone looking at change management and entering this new frontier in the legal industry,” says Hill.
Planning the new model, considering the firm’s specific needs, obtaining buy-in, being transparent, and providing support to the secretaries are critical to a firm’s success.
Have a Plan
A plan offers secretaries and attorneys a roadmap of what they can expect.
“People are very different,” says Buser. “They have different skills. Just putting them together and calling them a team doesn’t mean it’s going to work. There needs to be a lot of preparation. And you have to prepare the lawyers to accept a new model.” Buser recommends crafting communication that excites lawyers about the new approach and promotes the idea of gaining a team rather than losing a personal secretary.
Be Attuned to Your Culture
Critical in developing such a plan is focusing on your firm’s needs.
“I think the downfall comes from the lack of really defining what the firm’s goal is, based upon the area of law that they’re in,” says Cynthia Thomas, Founder and President of PLMC & Associates. “It’s not a one solution fits all.”
Indeed, focusing on your firm’s culture and goals can be helpful in crafting the secretarial solution that will work best for your attorneys and how they work.
“Each firm has a different culture, so they have to think about their own culture and what it is they want to accomplish,” says Ryan. “What’s the goal with teaming? What are you trying to do? What problem are you trying to solve? Are you trying to do more with less? Are you trying to improve the substance of the support you give to attorneys?”
Garnering buy-in is important to having a successful new secretarial model.
“You absolutely must have a key partner jump into these centers,” says Vaz. “Everyone goes along with it until it’s their secretary. So there needs to be leadership buy-in.”
Part of getting this buy-in is to fully understand the needs of the attorneys and the skills of the secretaries. By communicating how the teams will satisfy both parties, the firm can obtain greater support.
“Our experience is that firms don’t go about it in a systematic way, and they just put these groups together and say ‘now go out and do it,’” says Santiago. “They haven’t talked to the stakeholders to see what they need, and they haven’t talked to the secretaries.”
And firms shouldn’t make the mistake of focusing solely on the partners and associates; they must focus on the secretaries themselves, who will be the face of this change.
“It’s really crucial to get the buy-in from the legal secretaries,” says Thomas. “I think before any implementation of change, it should be discussed within a meeting or open-type forum to make this a team effort and make their voices heard.”
Another tool that is essential for a successful roll out of a new secretary model is transparency.
“Any time you’re dealing with change management, transparency is key,” says Hill. “Otherwise you’re going to set people up for failure.”
Firms should endeavor to be open and frank with legal secretaries about their new roles. Many secretaries have devoted their entire careers to the firm, and they’re nervous about the cultural change, says Cramer.
Provide Training and Coaching
The unfortunate aspect of new models is that they may not work for all people, and some secretaries may find that their skills or preferences do not align with a team approach. In these cases, firms may need to innovate and consider additional training, especially in the area of utilizing technology, says Vaz.
Secretaries who are resistant to change can consider whether they’d prefer to transfer to another job or consider a separation package. An effective approach is to provide a coach who can help secretaries consider whether retirement is a better option and what that means financially, emotionally and socially for them, says Vaz.
If your firm is looking for more insight regarding this topic, check out ALA’s latest white paper,“The Changing Role of the Legal Secretary.” Author Jennifer Hill, President of JHill’s Staffing Services, a division of Marcum Search, outlines the issues surrounding the changing roles of the traditional legal secretary and offers a definitive role-based solution that can be applied across the entire legal community, resulting in a more efficient and successful workforce that can be recruited across firms.
About the Author
Mary Kate Sheridan, JD, is a writer, editor and lawyer with a JD from Columbia Law School, an MFA in creative writing from The New School, and a BA in English from Mary Washington College. Previously, she worked as a litigator at a Vault 100 law firm.