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As the nature of lawyers’ client-facing work has evolved, so too should the role of the legal secretary, who can and should be utilised in a more supportive function for a greater number of lawyers. By Clodagh Beaty
The traditional typing-heavy, legal secretarial role, with secretaries working for two or three lawyers, is disappearing fast. Increased competition and client demands mean the role of the lawyer has changed and firms now require secretaries to provide a different type of support to lawyers.
This, coupled with developments in technology and changes in working practices, has made the traditional role almost obsolete. Typing is no longer the valued skill it once was due to the growth of transcription services for law firms and IT-savvy lawyers happy to draft on-screen. The emphasis for the secretarial role now is the need to be able to juggle the demands of six or more busy lawyers.
From secretary to assistant
What is now required is a proactive and client-focused ‘manager’ of a team of lawyers. There needs to be a willingness to take responsibility and engage with the business. The culture of the firm must enable this – secretaries cannot be expected to buy into the firm’s business strategy if they do not know what it is. The inclusion of secretaries in team meetings, post-transaction review meetings and practice group events and conferences is essential if they are to be an integral part of the team.
Business development and client relationship management responsibilities have increased for lawyers at all stages of their careers. These are key areas where secretaries can provide much more effective support to lawyers. While lawyers can manage client relationships, there is no reason why all the background work could not be undertaken by secretaries. Preparing briefing packs for lawyers prior to meetings, diarising followups and helping collate information for bids and tenders are just some of the tasks that secretaries are well placed to deal with.
Secretaries generally have much better organisational and administrative skills than lawyers. These skills can be utilised to support lawyers on project management, matter management and financial management. For example, if a client requires regular status and financial reports, secretaries can collate the information and prepare the report for lawyers to finalise.
Additionally, in some areas secretaries can pick up basic legal administrative tasks under supervision, such as carrying out company searches, preparing legal forms, producing ‘bibles’ and maintaining extranet sites.
The reality is that many firms have not realised the huge potential of their secretaries and have set expectations at far too low a level. Law firms need to ensure that their secretaries have the right skills and commit to training and empowering their secretaries to take on a much broader role.
The first step, prior to any training programme for an enhanced secretarial role, is being extremely clear about what is expected from secretaries and communicating this effectively to both secretaries and lawyers. Training should concentrate first on quick wins and ensuring secretaries have all the information available to them to enable them to support lawyers effectively. For example, do they know where to get information when preparing bids and tenders or briefing packs, or how to complete certain forms?
A secretarial training programme does not need to be costly. Many firms fail to utilise their in-house resources for training. Training in business development and client relationship management skills can often be delivered by in-house specialists.
Using junior lawyers to deliver basic legal administrative training is a good development opportunity for the lawyers. Professional support lawyers are a great resource to use for training on project management and matter management training. Finance team members have much to gain from ensuring secretaries’ finance and billing skills are improved. Aside from the cost saving, a benefit to using in-house resources is the relationship building
and improved communication between secretaries and other support functions within the business.
Unfortunately, while you can send a secretary on an Excel training course and expect them to come back and prepare spreadsheets, the same cannot be said for proactivity and engagement. What you can do is be clear about what is expected from them and encourage secretaries and lawyers to work together.
Training or coaching for lawyers should also be considered – lawyers often do not know how to utilise secretaries effectively or are uncertain as to what it is reasonable to ask a secretary to do.
The benefits of an enhanced role and effective training are secretaries who are committed, motivated and engaged. The best secretaries rarely want to spend all day typing and want greater involvement and more exposure to clients. By maximising secretaries’ exposure to a wide variety of additional tasks, lawyers will spend less time on administration and non-chargeable work, as well as having more effective support. Ultimately, clients gain through a better-quality service.
Some secretaries are already working at this level and have been for years, often driven by partners who have long been aware of the benefits of utilising their support in this way. The challenge for the future is for secretaries to provide a greater level of support to larger numbers of lawyers.
Clodagh Beaty is secretarial project manager at Pinsent Masons