Beyond the call of duty

While the legal profession develops and changes, there is an individual who is an important, yet frequently under-utilised resource.

Legal secretaries have had to adapt rapidly to change over the past decade as a result of technology, national economics and working procedures.

Although it is accepted that all lawyers will have to obtain some level of computer literacy, legal secretaries have had to learn computer skills to stay in employment. A temporary legal secretary with no such knowledge can be used in less than one in 100 bookings.

And although legal secretaries can still attract premium salaries, the rapid salary spiral of the mid-1980s has now levelled out. This has been facilitated in part by improved communications between personnel staff to create uniform procedures from one firm to another. It is very rare nowadays for secretaries to leave purely for remuneration; the call nowadays is for a better job, with 'more involvement'.

Unfortunately, commercial legal work in any city generates a lot of typing. But even when the typing has been done many fee earners do not use secretaries to their full potential.

Nobody is suggesting a secretary should give legal advice to clients, but there are many tasks which a lawyer carries out that could easily be delegated to a competent secretary, like assisting with marketing and simple research. This boosts fee earner productivity and provides a more satisfying job for a secretary.

With senior secretarial salaries capable of reaching £30,000 per annum and salaries of £20,000 not uncommon, it is worth considering whether a secretary may be interested in developing their role beyond that of a typist.

This is an issue which human resource staff are tackling. Staff retention is an important aspect of the personnel function and some firms are now taking a proactive role in training not only the secretaries to adopt further duties, but also the solicitors in how to get the best from their secretary.

The pay-off from this approach is an increased sense of corporate loyalty and personal satisfaction and ultimately lower recruitment costs.

Improved human resources policy and the after-effects of the recession have contributed to people staying with firms longer. 'Job-hopping' is largely a thing of the past. Secretaries are remaining with a firm for an average of three or four years-plus as opposed to one or two years which was common up until the mass redundancies prevalent in the late 1980s.

The movement of secretaries between law firms tends to follow patterns. Those individuals who have never worked for the major firms assume that bigger is better. Whereas the potential for a broader-based job specification exists within a smaller firm, the attraction of benefits such as pension schemes, health schemes and restaurant facilities holds sway.

The other train of thought exists in reverse – many legal employees, including non-secretaries, who are currently with large firms suffer a lack of identity and believe there is a greater chance of involvement with a smaller practice.

In reality, this is misleading, as the nature of the secretarial job is defined by the modus operandi of the boss or bosses.

Another misconception in the legal field is based on the assumption that working at partner level is going to guarantee a more satisfying and lucrative position than work at less senior levels.

Salaries, at last, are starting to reflect the demands of the job in a more meritorious way than the traditional hierarchical salary structures, although there is still kudos attached to working for a partner.

The job market has revived from the doldrums of the recession. The increase in work is reflected by firms increasingly providing one secretary for one solicitor. The dearth of work available in the late 1980s saw many secretarial redundancies with the remaining staff 'doubled up' with two or three solicitors. Where firms are uncertain of the long term need for a specific secretary, there is also a notable increase in the requirement for temporary legal secretaries, beyond even that seen in the early 1980s.