Support staff face new era

Voice recognition software is no substitute for the 'art' of a good PA

As a heavy producer of the written word, the legal profession relies on secretaries and dictaphones. But the arrival of IT is redefining the role of the legal secretary.

Alyson Rogers has worked as a legal secretary for a range of firms – from large commercial lawyers, to smaller general practices like Halifax-based Thompson Garside & Co, where she currently works.

Rogers believes the application of IT “will eventually lead to fewer support staff and more partners sharing support workers” – a significant development on the current office culture where partners tend to have their own secretary.

The most obvious threat to the legal secretary is speech recognition technology. But Rogers does not believe the first wave of speech recognition technology will revolutionise the legal office. “It can't correct solicitors' grammar, nor do the automatic corrections the secretary will do without thinking about.”

Neither does the average City solicitor have the time to check speech recognition documents. “Fee earners do not have the time to do the work and then make corrections – you need support staff to do that,” Rogers says.

According to John Stacey-Hibbert, general secretary of the Association of Paralegals, the main difficulty with IT programs for support staff is finance. “It's extremely unusual to install [specialist] equipment for support staff,” he says.

In addition “voice recognition is looked upon with suspicion”, particularly in small firms where solicitors still tend to use the standard three programs – the spreadsheet, database and word processor,” he says.

The association now encourages paralegals to have keyboard skills. However, Stacey-Hibbert is confident that the legal secretary will not be replaced in the near future.

In response to developing communications, the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) is considering incorporating IT modules into its course structure. Ilex law reform officer Paul Dubal feels that generally “the legal world has been a bit slow in embracing technology”. He describes the profession as “in its embryonic stages” as far as IT is concerned.

Midlands firm Wragge & Co recently piloted use of a speech recognition system. It was recognised that the old way of working required two specialists – a lawyer and a secretary.

This is a very labour-intensive method of working at double the cost, explains Wragge & Co litigation partner Maurice Nichols. Nichols, who was responsible for his firm's pilot scheme, says the aim was to “eliminate one step out of that process – which meant either educating lawyers to use keyboards or to enable the software to do the keyboard inputting automatically”.

Implementing speech recognition was problematic, recalls Nichols. “It requires a huge amount of patience, time and commitment from the user.”

In addition, lawyers will always resort to the quickest route because they do not want to nurse along a product. Nichols recognises the value of administrative support. “Being a legal secretary is an art, there's a lot more to the job than just transcribing letters.”

Developing technologies will eventually allow staff to “use untapped skills”, says Nichols, “and do a great deal more to provide fee earner support”. Nichols believes this will lead “to a blending or breakdown of the barriers between fee earning at the lowest end of scale and secretarial support at the highest end”.