Sandie Craciun, head of secretarial services, Herbert Smith

Law firms are continuing to operate in a very competitive market where clients are demanding the highest quality legal advice almost instantaneously. It is no longer solely the quality of the legal advice that puts the lead players ahead of the field, but crucially the all-round provision of excellent service and value for money.

In the legal and support areas of most City firms this change has taken place naturally, with services being adapted to meet clients’ changing needs. But an area that many have overlooked is the secretarial service. The onslaught of technology and the computer-literate fee-earner has resulted in the need for the evolution of a new breed of proactive, technically skilled and flexible PAs. Few firms appear to have planned how the secretaries can be supported in adapting their skills. Instead, the current economic climate has driven some firms to look for radical solutions to reduce the numbers on their often demotivated and beleaguered secretarial teams.

Admittedly, now is the ideal time to rethink secretarial strategies, but a constructive approach is called for. The aim is for an environment where secretaries pull together to improve effectiveness in existing services and where they are empowered to initiate new ways of working to fully realise their own potential. Denis Simpson, director of specialist City recruitment consultancy Career Legal, agrees: “It’s essential that law firms utilise their secretarial staff more effectively and that different – but equally valuable – skills are identified and optimised.”
It was against this background and following an external consultancy review of its secretarial function that the Herbert Smith project for change was initiated almost two years ago. The main recommendation was the creation of a management structure that was completely independent of HR. The implementation of the project was spearheaded by the appointment of a head of secretarial services to have senior level responsibility in the firm’s central support management structure.

The next stage was to set up independently managed secretarial teams reporting to the new head. Relieving partners of secretarial management responsibility is a major benefit in freeing up partner time and ensuring representation and consistency of approach towards the secretaries across the entire firm.

A continuing commitment to development is very important. Secretaries who feel involved and valued for their skills are thriving. Rachel Walsh, a secretary in Herbert Smith’s corporate division, joined the firm from a non-legal background some five years ago. She says: “It’s important that secretaries have a voice and that their training needs are recognised and addressed. Secretaries can take on more interesting work and thereby enhance their day-to-day roles.” This view was also expressed by Paul Thomas, managing partner of Halliwell Landau, in The Lawyer (18 March).

By striving towards a sustained improvement, consideration of the future secretarial generation is vital. Given the vision for the evolution of the new breed of PA, it is no longer a necessity for the new recruit to have legal experience. In the last year, only 20 per cent of secretaries successfully placed in City law firms by Career Legal were from outside the legal profession. In the same period at Herbert Smith, 83 per cent of secretarial recruits were from non-legal backgrounds. An intensive eight-week training programme to ensure that secretarial skills were complemented by an in-depth knowledge of the firm’s practices was key in recruiting highly motivated secretaries.

Change can be very unsettling and communication and honesty plays a huge part in ensuring that secretaries understand what is happening to their roles and allaying any fears that they may have. The principles behind the implementation of a change programme need to be clear and should encourage involvement in the process at all levels. An evolutionary and phased approach is by far the least disruptive to the business.

The Herbert Smith project was aimed at achieving a vision of client-focused teams of secretaries who feel valued and rewarded for their contribution. A welcome consequence has been a 70 per cent improvement in the fee-earner to secretary ratio in just 14 months. A testimony to the success of the project is the number of competitor firms seeking to establish the methodologies behind the project. Apologies – those will remain top secret.