I initially called this post The Evolving Role of Legal Secretaries. Then I realized that “evolve” suggests a continuous process but what we see today seems a discontinuity, an abrupt change.  I am not sure though, that  large law firms understand just how profound the change is or needs to be.

Over the weekend, I listened to recordings of the September 2013 ILTA/GLA ALA: The Changing Role of the Legal Secretary and January 2013 The Changing Role of the Legal Secretary webinars.

Panelists in both raised great issues and suggested many interesting ideas.  For example, I heard about  specialized training (e.g., research, MS Office),  teams, secretaries doing the work of paralegals, certifications, and new functions secretaries can perform.

I fear, however, that the focus is more on minor adjustments than a fundamental re-think.  The “installed based problem” holds firms back.  That term, from the tech world, means intentionally limiting improvement because too much change would  not work with existing systems. So instead of a total re-design, firms cut secretaries and then adjust what the remaining ones do.  This approach poorly serves secretaries, lawyers, and firms.

The best place to start would be to white board what support should look like and then design to that.  I suggested doing so in my January 2009 blog post, Law Firm Staffing Reference Model.

And remember the legal market is now in flux.  Firms that build law factories certainly will need new support structures.  And firms that work mainly under  fixed fees would likely provide lawyers with more support that is more carefully tailored to real rather than imagined needs.  See my April 2013 post,  Lawyer Productivity in Alternative Fee Arrangement (AFA) World, on this point.)

To be sure, some firms have made big changes, for example, moving most document production from secretaries to central (and sometimes outsourced) word processing centers.  Others have adopted teams.  (My 2003 article, The Future of Legal Secretaries (Legal Times), suggested creating teams)

We can, however, think of even bigger changes.  For example, might we be able to re-engineer away some of the work.  Perhaps automation, standardizing formats, and more careful lawyer timekeeping would eliminate a fair bit of the work around client billing.  And perhaps firms need to hire quantitative analysts, project managers, and more researchers instead of “traditional secretaries.”

The steady stream of secretarial lay-offs and buy-offs over the last few year shows that firms are willing to cut.  What we do not know yet is whether they are willing to re-design and add.