Typists' last bastion?

Arabella McIntyre Brown discovers that not all lawyers are willing, or able, to recognise secretaries' value. Arabella McIntyre Brown is a freelance journalist. Talk of speech recognition software that will enable lawyers to dictate straight on to their desktop computers has got equity partners excited about all the typists' salaries that they will be able to claw back. But on sober reflection, most law firms recognise that even the most sophisticated computer cannot make coffee, soothe overheated fee-earning brows, calm angst-ridden clients or find a crucial affidavit lost among swaying heaps of paper.

Being pragmatic, waves of redundancies among support staff might look like a desirable cost-saver, but quite apart from the risk of unfair dismissal claims, it would be a short-sighted move. Firms with above-average business sense recognise the value of support staff to the profitability of the firm, and see speech recognition software as a chance to increase the productivity of fee earners as well as secretaries. By reducing duplication of effort – removing a stage of the document preparation process – speech recognition will allow secretaries to become assistants and allow fee earners to earn fees rather than waste time on administration.

"For any firm with a growth pattern, the effect will be on recruitment rather than retention," says Michael Shaw, managing partner of Cobbetts in Manchester. His personnel manager, Kevin Fisk, sees the benefits of speech recognition in improving productivity. "It will mean far better use of time by fee earners and secretaries," says Fisk. "We are planning to train some secretaries as legal executives, and recruit secretaries to marketing and IT roles."

Without endless typing to do, secretaries could take the administrative burden from fee earners' shoulders: time sheets, organising meetings, chasing documents, updating clients on case progress and so on.

Diana Krawczuk is secretary to Sean Lippell, managing partner of Garretts in the North. She generates much of her own work and is also involved with training support staff and fee earners on IT and word processing, having done a teaching course last year. "I see no reason why secretaries can't expand their role if they want to do so," she says. "There are definitely opportunities here."

Not so, says Rex Makin. The legendary Liverpool lawyer thinks that letting employees loose on matters they are not trained for is dangerous.

If speech recognition became the norm, Makin says he would turn some audio typists into shorthand typists and let natural wastage take its course.

At Lupton Fawcett in Leeds, Paul Houghton, who recently arrived at the firm from Nabarro Nathanson in Sheffield, has been lumbered with investigating speech recognition. He says: "I only loaded my dulcet tones into the machine 10 days ago, so it has yet to learn my hybrid Scots/Yorkshire accent."

There is no guarantee that Lupton Fawcett will take on speech recognition just yet, but Houghton recognises that it is the way forward.

Houghton, who can type at 60-70 words per minute, considers that speech recognition may well mean reducing support staff numbers, but only "over a long period".

He adds: "There will be cost and difficulty in getting fee earners screened-up, and lawyers are not renowned for being able to dictate anyway. We're very lazy, mispronouncing names, eating and drinking while dictating. It doesn't help, and if our secretaries find it hard to cope, a computer won't find it any easier."

Makin is resigned to change, although he has no intention of changing himself. "I have worked with shorthand typists for 50 years," he says, making it clear that computers are not going to invade his desk.

"Thirty years ago, legal stationers had armies of copy typists to engross documents for solicitors. It was Dickensian – now they've all gone."

It is the way of things, Makin suggests, that jobs disappear in proportion to the increase in technological sophistication. However, the legal profession may be the last bastion of the typist.

"Solicitors are notoriously mean and notoriously conservative – not to say reactionary," says Makin. "If they could get away with using quill pens, they would."