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In today's technology-driven climate, it is clear that the need for traditional secretarial support is declining - or it should be. It is time to look at the secretarial role and take it on to another level.
A recent survey at Halliwell Landau found that the range of academic ability among secretaries varied from those who left school at 16 with no qualifications to postgraduates with first-class honours degrees. This is likely to be the case in law firms throughout the country, meaning that there is considerable untapped potential.
So what can secretaries - apart from diary arrangements and typing pools - bring to a modern law firm?
In many cases, law firms have encouraged secretaries with the ability and interest to develop their careers by pursuing the legal executive course. But this is not everyone's cup of tea. The after-hours effort required is wearing and requires real dedication. And sometimes it is just not practical.
However, some secretaries do have management and administration skills that, with the benefit of some development and training, can be used to improve the firm's client care procedures and financial management as a whole.
Organisational abilities and common sense are qualities that do not result in a certificate to put on the wall, but are nevertheless essential requisites to the efficient running of an office and the effective management of client relations.
And then there is client-handling skills. Secretaries are often the first point of call when a client contacts the firm. How many secretaries in the firm get to know the client after a few calls and represent the first - and in some instances the only - point of human contact before the client disappears into the depths of the legal system?
Clearly, all these skills are valuable to the firm, but apart from a pat on the back they receive little or possibly no recognition in the firm's management structure or reward system. It is time to move on and for law firms to redefine the traditional secretarial role, offering reward and recognition at its various levels.
The most competent secretaries could, with appropriate training, assume the role of senior support manager.
This would be a managerial position within a department and the firm, reporting to the departmental head, but with a separate and independent reporting line to central management. The senior support manager would be responsible for monitoring the department's client care procedures. They would have overall responsibility for credit management within the department, working with the head of the department as well as credit control and central management. In relation to business development, a support and coordination role would provide a link between the team support manager and the central business development department.
At the next level, each team of fee-earners within the department would be allocated a team support manager. Normally, this position would be filled by the most experienced secretary working within a fee-earning team. The person would be responsible for making sure that client care and credit management procedures within the team in relation to new clients and matters are followed. Additional duties would include business development support, and involvement in arranging, and if appropriate attending, client entertainment functions or seminars being run by the team.
It is clear that by offering career structures and incentives, law firms can maximise the effectiveness of their secretarial resources.
Career progression will not appeal to every secretary - just like heading a team or department does not appeal to every lawyer - but the benefits are increased efficiency, better client care, improved credit control and a more motivated, rewarded and committed workforce.