Legal Secretaries Of The Past & Present: Do Lawyers Need A New Support Staff System?

How did eighteen and a half minutes of tape vital for the Watergate investigation get erased? Just ask Nixon’s longtime and very loyal secretary Rosemary Woods. She demonstrated in court exactly how she “accidentally” erased evidence that could have changed American history in the early 1970s.

Think that’s bad? Secretary to Oliver “Ollie” North, a National Security Council aide, admitted in trial that she helped shred important documents during the Arthur Andersen-Enron debacle. Fawn Hall thus played a key role in exposing the arms-for-hostage deal that occurred during the Iran-Contra affair.

Single mom Erin Brockovich became famous for having Julia Roberts play her in a movie about her life—overshadowing, perhaps, her true claim to fame as being the legal secretary who exposed an industrial polluter.

Gone is the day when there was a traditional “legal secretary.” Just short of becoming another Brockovich, legal secretaries do not fit the one-size-fits-all model.

Legal powerhouses WilmerHale, Bingham McCutchen, and Arnold & Porter are among many established firms that are changing the way legal secretaries provide and channel administrative support to attorneys. Many top firms have completely revamped the work, the roles, and the ratios of legal secretaries by:

  • Redefining administrative positions,
  • Standardizing the work,
  • Enhancing teamwork, and
  • Applying creative new administrative models to expand coverage ratios.

Changing the way administrative assistants are assigned and utilized starts with a real-life assessment of what lawyers do and don’t need from their assistants.

But how can you analyze attorney needs and revamp its administrative approach for max savings (without sacrificing quality)?

First, analyze your needs. Ask your lawyers, from junior associates and senior partners, how they are using your support staff services, and what needs are not being met. Make sure to write down which of these needs are billable and which are not.

Then, ask your support staff how they think their services are being used. Do they think lawyers ask too much? Too little? Your support staff is best equipped with knowing what services they are able to provide, and what training or tools are needed to go further.

Next, determine what kind of model is needed for your firm. For example, your firm can match the skill set of secretaries to individual needs or it can assign single secretaries to particular types of work—transcription, case matter organization, answering the phones.

What hours of the day are busiest?

Do your legal secretaries prefer flexible or part-time schedules? Do their preferences conform to your lawyers’ needs? Is there middle ground?

Finally, write down your firm’s measures of productivity and achievement. Then, design a training program for your support staff that sets them up for success.

This year, make sure your legal secretaries are famous, not infamous.

For more concrete tips and tricks, attend the Center for Competitive Management (C4CM)’s webinar, “Legal Secretaries: Methods to Revamp, Regroup & Reassign Administrative Services for Max Profitability & Productivity” on Wednesday, October 22, 2014, from 2pm to 3:15pm EST.

Read more about “Some Real Secretaries Are As Famous As The Fictional Ones,” in Margo Harakas’s article for the Sun Sentinel here.

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