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The Future of Legal Secretaries

This article first appeared in the May 12, 2003 issue of Legal Times

ABSTRACT:  Advances in legal technology have caused the role of secretaries to change significantly. Law firms have opportunities to re-think how they manage secretaries to save money and improve internal and client service.

Note: See also my 2006 white paper, The Business Case to Outsource Secretarial and Document Production Tasks


Many law firms have increased the ratio of lawyers to secretaries; too few have carefully examined either the function or management of secretaries. Law firms may be able to save money and improve internal and client service by rethinking secretarial duties and how they are managed.

There are three reasons to reconsider the secretarial function. First, technology has drastically changed secretarial work: lawyers type more; word processing features such as styles, templates, and macros speed the work for both secretaries and lawyers; e-mail, voice mail, and instant messaging reduce the need to take telephone messages; printing replaces some photocopying; and even time entry is a shrinking function as more lawyers key-in their time. Consequently, some secretaries can focus on higher-value activities such as managing client relationships, drafting and proofreading documents, assembling and reviewing bills, and acting as executive assistants.

Second, managing secretaries is hard. Lawyer and secretary turnover and office moves make pairings difficult to manage well. Moreover, supervision is inherently bifurcated: Administratively, secretaries report to a secretarial manager, but their substantive work is supervised by their assigned lawyers. In this system, balancing workloads is a problem. Floor coordinators and back-up arrangements help, but do not solve the problem. And nearly everyone acknowledges that lawyers are loath to write honest appraisals for poor performance. This means that secretaries with performance problems do not receive the feedback or coaching they need to improve.

Third, both lawyers and firms have new needs. Instead of typing, filing, and taking messages, what some lawyers need is specialized support for presentations, data analysis, or practice applications (e.g., intellectual property docketing or document assembly). And many firms need secretaries to assist in knowledge and relationship management. These new needs can create opportunities for secretaries to enhance their skills and perhaps even their compensation.

Administrators should consider three strategies to address these changes: (1) explicitly train lawyers how to use secretaries effectively, (2) more carefully match resources to needs, and (3) create working groups of secretaries. Of these three strategies, working groups probably hold the most promise, according to the administrators interviewed for this article.

Training the Bosses

Interviewees pointed to a need to train lawyers how to effectively use secretaries. Training would do more than help lawyers and secretaries to work together more efficiently. Though secretarial tasks have evolved, few firms have consciously considered the highest-value use of secretaries. Before training lawyers, management should decide which secretarial functions are most important and communicate this to both lawyers and secretaries.

A training program would also be a good place to educate lawyers on the importance of honest performance appraisals. Clearly, this is a deeper cultural issue, but training would create an opening to begin changing this dysfunctional behavior.

Scheduling training sessions for lawyers is notoriously difficult, but for new and lateral lawyers, it would be fairly easy to add an hour-long session to an existing class or even to send a trainer to a lawyer’s office. The economic impact is not clear, however. On the one hand, profits could go up if lawyers are freed from some tasks to bill more time. On the other hand, if lawyers delegate more tasks to secretaries, lawyers could bill less time. If a firm decides it needs additional secretaries, costs could increase.

A second response to address the changing secretarial function is to match needs more carefully with resources. Some firms have strict rules about assigning a secretary to a certain number of lawyers. Ratios range from two to four lawyers per secretary. Rigid rules may avoid politics but do not necessarily effectively utilize secretaries or provide adequate support for lawyers. Matching lawyers and secretaries based on actual lawyer workloads and secretarial capacity – including particular secretarial skills, is likely to improve the current situation. Predicting the economic outcome of this approach is hard because it is not obvious in which direction the overall ratio would move.

The Working Group (AKA Team)

A third response is to establish working groups of secretaries, not to be confused with teams A team is appropriate where the output is a joint work product. In contrast, aworking group is where performance depends on what members do as individuals. In law firms, secretarial outputs depend on individual, not joint, effort, but groups are often called teams because “team” has a certain cachet. (For more on the distinction between teams and groups, see “The Discipline of Teams” by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1993, p. 111.)

A 1999 American Association of Legal Administrators white paper suggested the concept of secretarial teams: “The Client Service Team concept involves a group of skilled staff members assigned to support a group of attorneys and paralegals. Within such a team one person might focus on technical production skills, one on communication skills and one on administrative skills such as reviewing projects, setting priorities and establishing time frames.” This proposal is similar to the working group concept.

Working groups can be set up to maintain the primary relationship between a lawyer and his or her secretary. Groups offer several potential benefits for firms, lawyers, and secretaries.

If, for example, four secretaries serve 12 lawyers, then balancing work loads should be easier.The working group members can allocate tasks among themselves rather than rely on a physically distant coordinator who is removed from the lawyers’ needs. One secretary could be designated as a coordinator or supervisor of each group. (Of course, any assignment of coordinator or supervisory functions needs to be consistent with labor laws and the firm’s own human resources policies.) When groups run smoothly, firms may be able to sustain higher ratios of lawyers to secretaries.

Another benefit is better back-up support for lawyers. Several interviewees commented that a floater is a poor substitute for the regular secretary. Another secretary in a working group can more easily fill in for someone who is out. Working groups might even help address the issue that some secretaries do not work to their full capacity. Peer pressure is a big motivator and might improve productivity and even reduce absenteeism.

Working groups would also allow specialization by function and/or seniority. A group might consist of individuals with expertise in document production, relationship management, and filing. If some of the lawyers have a more specialized need—for Excel or PowerPoint, for example—the aggregated demand of multiple lawyers might justify training at least one secretary to become a “power user.”

New Responsibilities

Moreover, the group structure might also enable secretaries to assume new, more substantive responsibilities. For example, some firms have created systematic knowledge management programs designed to capture and reuse valuable work product. At McCarthy Tetrault in Canada, Director of Knowledge Management Joshua Fireman says that his firm relies heavily on secretaries to help with KM. The firm adopted specialized KM software that captures contextual information about documents. Lawyers write a short summary and key points. The software then routes documents to secretaries, who add more information such as jurisdiction or document type.

While Fireman’s firm has not moved to working groups, this example illustrates a new role for secretaries. Working groups would give experienced secretaries time to help with KM because they could delegate lower-level tasks to junior secretaries.

Some firms are already experimenting with working groups. One large New York-based law firm is beginning to experiment with working groups in some of its European offices. And Paul Sicari, the administrator for the D.C. office of Latham & Watkins, reports that his office has been trying out three secretarial “teams.” After one year, the experiment is considered very successful. For example, the firm determined that first-year associates have similar support needs so that three secretaries can support 18 first-years.

Some might react in horror to this ratio. Realistically though, this team probably offers more support than first-years typically receive when they are paired with more-senior lawyers, who are usually given priority.

The Downside

Of course, working groups may have disadvantages. Most of the half-dozen secretaries interviewed expressed concern about a group approach. They worried that groups would disrupt existing relationships and create additional stresses. Most saw benefit in being able to delegate work, though one expressed concern about being responsible for the performance of others. Several secretaries indicated they already work in informal groups, typically focused by practice or by floor. But these groups evolved organically and by chance—they were not imposed by management. The secretaries also agreed that a group setting could help train new secretaries and provide better career paths.

Space planning to accommodate groups may be less of an issue than it first appears. At Latham, the teams are working without a space redesign. Two architects who have worked extensively with law firms do not think that groups inherently require redesign. Sally Wilson of CB/Richard Ellis points out that existing spaces offer secretaries needed privacy. And Phil Olson of Alliance Architecture says that when a few firms created group areas in the 1980s, lawyers and secretaries reacted negatively. Both architects suggest that firms interested in groups first experiment with new administrative models, determine what works, focus on individualized needs, and then turn to space planning issues.

Moving toward groups can also raise billing questions. Groups might allow some secretaries to do certain tasks that might otherwise be done by legal assistants. Given client sensitivity to bills, this issue requires careful consideration. Two firm administrators interviewed did not see a problem, however, in billing for time that secretaries spend on what is traditionally billable work. Their view is that if work is billable by nature, it should not matter who does it.

It is not clear whether adopting the group approach would have a direct impact on performance reviews. But migrating to this model, like training, would provide an opening to prompt lawyers to write more accurate reviews. A forward-thinking firm might even consider a 360-degree review process, in which secretaries in a group evaluate each other.

There is no question that the duties of secretaries have changed. The three approaches suggested here may improve utilization and client service, ease management issues, or grow profits. A firm will need to test each approach, be flexible, and make ongoing adjustments, but new strategies are likely to yield benefits. It seems clear that just managing the ratio is not enough.