Power behind the scenes

Anne-Marie Watson and Andrew Levison are consultants at the David Andrews Partnership.

The relationship between a secretary and the boss has always been a potential minefield, but with a little consideration it can be rewarding and productive.

The problem is that this rewarding relationship is only the result of a lot of training on both sides. When a secretary is appointed to a new fee earner, or the fee earner takes on a new secretary, there are a few lessons which need to be learned by each of them, over a period of time.

The pattern of work in the law firm has changed significantly over the last 10 years particularly with the introduction of new technology.

When manual typewriters were overtaken by electric machines, and then the advent of typewriters with memory, the role of the typist or secretary did not change significantly. They still carried out their traditional role.

Everyone knew where the lines of responsibility were drawn and the job descriptions were clear.

The information revolution which has been happening in most businesses with the introduction of the PC and easy-to use software has not bypassed the legal profession. The people who have been most affected in the profession to date have had to adapt to this new way of producing documents.

Sometimes, albeit rarely, the systems have been installed after consultation with the secretaries, following training, occasionally by experienced trainers.

More often secretaries were just told they would be using a different system the following day. Some secretarial staff were not prepared to adapt their way of working to a new system and refused to make the effort required for its successful implementation.

Those implementing the changes may not have listened to useful suggestions from their secretaries on the way systems could work more effectively, even though it was the secretaries who had to use them. The answer is to talk to your secretary or boss about potential changes so that they know you value their opinion.

As the advances in technology affect more legal firms, developments in software have automated many of the procedural tasks involved with more predictable matters. This was initially targeted at fee earning staff, but is now being used in a number of firms as a way of

using secretaries in a fee earning role.

Voice activation and workflow management software can reduce the typing aspect of secretaries' jobs and enable them to use the more interesting software tools available.

How many firms ask their secretaries if they want to train as legal executives? This is a potentially untapped resource which many firms could use to real advantage with a little lateral thinking. Firms need to widen their view of the capabilities of the secretarial role. It is not limited to typing and message-taking.

All these problems stem from a simple lack of effective communication.

There are often a number of reasons for this, from personality clashes to lack of thought and respect for the other person. It may seem obvious, but the only real way to solve these kinds of problems is to talk about them.

All too often, problems are bottled up and talked about in whispers. This does not make them go away. As with any relationship, confronting an issue is not everyone's idea of the best solution but problems caused by the lack of communication are often best solved by discussing them without being accusatory.

If the situation is becoming impossible, but preferably before this point, a meeting should be set up in an environment in which each party can put their point of view in a non-confrontational manner. The aim of the exercise is not to blame anyone, but to reach a suitable compromise.

If nothing else, it should clear the air and make each party feel they have been able to put their point of view.

Careful thought as to the development of the secretarial resource can give the firm a financial advantage and have a dramatic impact upon the profitability of many areas of work. However, these things do not happen automatically, but rather they involve creative thinking and effort on the part of both secretary and lawyer.