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Navigating New Waters: Working with a Legal Secretary

By Larry Coles and Carly Alameda

Intelligent. Fresh out of law school. You spent the past two summers getting a glimpse of the legal world. You received an offer of employment. You are confident you aced the Bar exam. As you enter your new office on your first day, you are ready to take on the world of law.


But first, there is orientation. You fill out forms. You receive the office handbook. You are shown how to use all the programs that the office uses to accomplish every imaginable task. Somebody talks to you about accounting, billing, and the conflicts department. In a larger firm, you are also introduced to lawyers, secretaries, and support staff. You get your first assignment.


Your head is spinning. What forms need to be filled out and returned? Who do you talk to for computer support? If you have a word processing department, where is it and what exactly can they do for you? You are told you will need to file a brief with the court, but what exactly does that entail?


Suitably dazed by now, you are finally taken back to your office where you are introduced to your secretary. Perhaps you have never before worked at a job where you had an assistant, and you are not accustomed to working with one. Or maybe you have had the good fortune of having assistance before. Either way, a legal secretary is a person with a wide variety of incredibly valuable skills who can be your life buoy in the rough seas of administrative and legal paperwork, as well as the court system—that is, if you are wise enough to let him or her serve this role.


Very little of what you learned in law school has prepared you for daily life as an attorney. Managing paperwork and navigating the inner workings of your law firm, your department, or the court system are daunting tasks.


You have two options. On the one hand, you are a smart person and you can try to figure this out on your own. After all, how hard can it be?


On the other hand, you can use the most valuable resource you have been provided—your secretary. If you accept the fact that you cannot do this job alone, then you have made the first wise choice of your career. Your secretary can be your biggest ally. All you have to do is ask, and your secretary (most likely) will gladly help.


Every office is different, but your secretary should be able to sit down with you and translate everything that you have learned in orientation. Moreover, your secretary can provide invaluable guidance and assistance regarding:


  • administrative paperwork
  • accounting, billing, and conflicts matters
  • organization and management of your case files
  • drafting documents, including letters, pleadings, and agreements
  • getting documents filed with the court, served to the parties, and sent to others in the office or to the client

Your secretary also can make calls to ask questions, get information, or schedule events on your behalf. It is both helpful and wise to allow your secretary to assist you in these tasks. You will most likely interact with your secretary as much as, if not more than, any other single person in the office. And you will rely on your secretary to help you get things done correctly and get them done on time.


As such, it is important for you to make the effort to establish a positive working relationship. Typically, this only requires a bit of Dale Carnegie—that is, thoughtful consideration and a demonstration of professional respect and earnest gratitude. The following are five tips to help you on your way.


Open Up Communication Channels
As early as possible, set up a time to sit down with your secretary and solicit his/her understanding of the firm’s basic procedures and routines. Discuss how your secretary handles mail, phone calls, files, and expense reports, and how to complete other daily tasks. You or your secretary may have certain preferences that are unknown to each other, so figuring these out in advance is to your advantage. The sooner you both are on the same page about basic procedures and expectations, the better.


Learn What Your Secretary Can Do for You
To best use your secretary’s skills, you need to know what he or she can do for you. If you have never worked with a secretary before, all the various areas your secretary can assist you with may not occur to you.


The best way to find out is to ask. Do not be shy about asking for help on a task, including learning how your secretary has handled similar tasks for other firm lawyers in the past. If you are unsure of what to ask, let your secretary know what you are working on. Then your secretary can let you know how he or she can assist you. Every secretary is different and each brings his or her own level of experience and strengths, so talk with your secretary and find out what he or she can do.


Keep Your Secretary Informed
Nothing is worse than finding out about an impending deadline shortly before it is due. To avoid inflicting this fate on your secretary and to best ensure that deadlines are met, keep your secretary as informed as possible about upcoming time-sensitive tasks. Your secretary most likely works with several busy attorneys and can best manage the various workloads when he or she knows what will need to be done.


In addition, it is important to communicate with your secretary about the details of getting a document out the door. A brief may be due with the court by 4:30 p.m., but your secretary will need it before this time to finalize any changes in the document and to make time for the filing process. Especially on larger projects, communicate with your secretary well in advance and update him or her regularly to make sure you both understand impending tasks and deadlines.


Find Out What You Can Do for Your Secretary
For the most part, your secretary will be working hard to make your life easier for you. Early on in your working relationship, follow up with your secretary and ask for feedback on whether there is anything you can do that might make the relationship work even better. Your secretary will most likely work hard to adapt to your routines, and you may get some useful insight that allows you to be more efficient in your tasks as well.


Show Your Appreciation
Do not forget that your secretary is doing the best he or she can to help you in your various daily tasks. It is your secretary’s job to do this. But it is nice to know when the efforts are appreciated.


Treat your secretary with dignity and respect and maintain good communication with him or her. Together you can establish a great working relationship. Your transition into the legal world will be far more successful if you do.


Keywords: Legal secretary, communication, professional development


Larry Coles is a legal secretary and Carly Alameda is a litigation associate with the firm Farella Braun + Martel LLP in San Francisco, California.


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of the Woman Advocate.


 
  • March 31, 2009 – Of course, this is an anonymous reply. The article is laughable. Legal Secretary positions are disappearing. With secretaries "supporting" 4 to 5 attorneys, their assistance is spread quite thin. Firms EXPECT new lawyers to pretty much do their own work. If you're unfortunate enough to be teamed up with a few partners, your contact with your secretary will be basically non-existent. Voice mail, email, blackberries--these have taken the place of face to face contact. Law firms are systematically raising the secretary to lawyer ratio, and when secretaries retire (or are fired to saive $50,000) they are not replaced; rather, the remaining lawyers are absorbed into a new coven. Technology has definitely driven the decline of this position, but law firms have always looked to secretaries as a necessary evil; something to be tolerated, but kept under thumb vis-a-vis salaries and perks. It really is a shame to witnessed this decline.
  • June 4, 2009 – you can pay a secretary $20/hour to type-or bill out an associate at $200/hour to type --- what will firms do technology allows attoneys to do secretarial work at hundreds of dollars per hour -- show me a lawyer who types an email as fast as he dictates a letter -- it can't be done a .3 dictated letter is a .6 email Yippee!!

 

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