ABA Journal



BigLaw firms offering buyouts to secretaries who face ‘unforgiving job market’

Jun 27, 2013, 11:52 am CDT


Legal secretaries are vestigial remnants of an old ethics system in which firms once thought they could not bill clients $450/hour for attorneys to type documents.

By B. McLeod on 2013 06 27, 12:25 pm CDT

No, legal secretaries are vestigial remnants of dinosaur law firms who think it's more efficient for a lawyer to dictate a document; have a secretary who makes $75,000 a year type the document; send it back to the lawyer to edit the document; who sends it back to the secretary to make changes to the document; who gives it to the paralegal to proofread the document ..... Lawyers do not bill clients to 'type' documents: they bill clients to create legal work product in a more efficient, direct fashion. From brain directly to fingertips on the keyboard.

By Marcboston on 2013 06 27, 3:07 pm CDT

"Lawyers do not bill clients to ‘type’ documents: they bill clients to create legal work product in a more efficient, direct fashion. From brain directly to fingertips on the keyboard."

Attorneys do more than type. Creating legal work product takes more than just typing.

Secretaries do more than type. Much much more. They provide great efficiency and add value in the creation of legal work product in ways that attorneys don;t have the time or the skills to handle. They organize work, assist with calendaring, keep information organized, interact with other staff, courts, service providers and clients, check documents for readability. A good legal secretary is solid gold, even in today's tablet computer obsessed world.

If an attorney with a truly busy practice had to do even half of the tasks a secretary does, that attorney would not have any time left to do the tasks that require a law degree.

Just my two bits.

By Been There on 2013 06 27, 4:39 pm CDT

I agree with 3. Been There – Jun 27, 2013 11:39 AM CDT

By Docile Jim Brady – Columbus OH 43209 on 2013 06 27, 10:22 pm CDT

I think Dewey collapsed in May of 2012. I was trying to figure out how this lady had blown through all of her retirement savings in two months. I guess it took fourteen months.

By Island Attorney on 2013 06 28, 12:44 am CDT

Been there - agreed. Lawyers do indeed do "more than type". They have to hunt through their files to find previously written documents on a similar issue, open the file, do a "find" command for the prior clients name and data, do a "replace" for the current client, figure out how long the document (letter, motion...) would have taken if they actually drafted it from scratch (horrors!), and add that amount to the client's bill. No secretary needed for such (sadly all too normal) shenanigans.

By NYS Courts ex-wife on 2013 06 28, 12:12 pm CDT

Agree with Been There. I'm GC at a small company, am the only attorney and do not have a legal secretary. Guess what? I get to do all the tasks that Been There mentioned a legal secretary does. While I don't have to worry about billing hours, my efficiency level as an attorney is down because I spend too much time typing, copying, scanning, etc. The lesson - don't take a good, trained legal secretary for granted.

By Former Private Practice on 2013 06 28, 12:51 pm CDT

I am at BigLaw and I have seen the legal secretaries at our firm go from a ratio of 2:1 to 4.5:1 and with that, a change in the role of the legal secretary. My assistant used to answer my phone (if I was away), type my documents and revise my documents (allowing me time to work on other projects) and most importantly, she knew my clients and what I was working on. Now, my assistant has no contact with any of my clients (gone are the days when she picked up my phone -- now it goes straight to voicemail), she doesn't help me enter my time (we have new programs for that!), no longer revises my documents (and even if she does, she doesnt really pay attention to it) and has no idea who my clients are and what I work on everyday. She is overwhelmed with busier partners (and I have been a partner for 13 years!) and is always willing to help me if I ask, but her time is very limited. With the changing role of the legal secretary, clients often don't feel the same connection to the firm and that there is an entire "team" working for him or her. I think as time moves on, the role of the legal secretary will be even more reduced. Personallly, the loss of camaraderie and team approach makes me feel more isolated - just come into my office and type away at my work. I agree that the ratio were overbloated in the early days but maybe too much fat was taken out. Also, I think that legal secretaries need to learn to evolve with their positions -- maybe they have to work a lot harder and smarter, but they are paid well or they face the risk of extinction when they become just another widget rather than someone who is important to the client relationship.

By Susan on 2013 06 28, 1:26 pm CDT

#8, I agree with you on 2 out of 3. I think Dershowitz’s remarks are off base, and that the attempted joke was colossally foolish and makes me question whether this lawyer is competent to handle such a big case.

Regarding the young woman, she has admitted to a number of lies on the stand, and has serious credibility problems. “Can’t read cursive”- who believes that? I suspect whatever the jury does, in the end they are going to say “we didn’t believe anything she said and based our decision on all the other evidence.” I don’t know why she was given such a prominent role in the trial, and it makes me suspect a flaw in either the prosecutor’s judgment, or the overall quality of the evidence. Sometimes you are just stuck with a bad witness.

It seemed to me the evidence of Zimmerman following Martin after being exhorted not to, plus forensics, was much more solid ground.

By Tom on 2013 06 28, 1:30 pm CDT

Getting back on topic (Tom - your "secretary" posted on the wrong thread). A real problem with the 4.5.1 model, as noted by Susan, is that the senior partners (or the more demanding ones) will monopolize the shared secretaries, as if it were still the good old days, and leave next to nothing for the rest. This leads to lack of institutional and personal file and schedule organization and also leads to attorneys doing efficient admin work, assuming the secretary is unavailable for, or unfamiliar with, the work leading to more slow-downs and inefficiencies. The seniors continue on as if nothing has happened and don't notice (or don't care - because unlike secretaries, lawyers cant charge for overtime work) all of the frantic bailing and shoveling going on below to keep the ship moving.

By pablo on 2013 06 28, 2:46 pm CDT

Typical Legal Secretary's Morning:

Revisions to billing print-outs.
Telephone conversations with court regarding generating docket #.
Telephone conversation with Sheriff's Office regarding foreclosure date adjournment.
Filing documents.
Telephone conversation with client regarding afternoon conference call.
Closing a file.
Set up conference call.
Filing documents.
Schedule meeting out of town with travel agency; also secure train tickets for another meeting.
E-mail to building engineer regarding leak in conference room.
Blackline 3rd version of document against 1st and then 2nd; e-mail to all parties.
Coordinate a hand delivery for 12 noon. Check and double check the right number of copies for each hand delivery.
Clear out leaky conference room and reschedule another conference room for 1 pm meeting.

In case anyone who is totally clueless does not get it, my job is to do whatever my boss does not have time to do. It is also to make whatever his or her work assignments easier. That "includes, but is not limited to" proofreading my own work at least twice, reminding my boss that documents were in fact sent or not received, working through lunch because he or she just might call in with an important or even urgent request and staying late to complete a deadline, along with screening calls that you know require a human contact (have memorized more than 30 regular callers). I work for two partners and 3 associates. I also have no issues regarding vacuuming up the remants of a fallen planter, making iced coffee or darjeeling white tea for a client, ordering lunch and setting it up, arguing with a courier regarding charges on a late delivery and not getting overtime on a regular basis. This is my job. The people I work for a pretty nice, decent human beings. We are not friends on any level, but they respect me and value my work. Just as I respect them and value theirs.

All of us know if we don't do the work, ain't none of us going to get paid.


By nativenewyorker on 2013 06 28, 3:13 pm CDT

@3 and @7 have it right, I think.

People bemoan the inability of us more seasoned lawyers to adopt and embrace technology. They are right - technology can certainly increase a lawyer's efficiency, and anyone that doesn't use it is robbing their clients.

Dictation? For some things--such as this post, for example--it works better than typing. You don't need a secretary to take dictation, though; Microsoft's operating system has a spiffy speech function that works great if you bother to turn it on.

While it's true that some of the more seasoned lawyers are slow to learn the bleeding edge technonolgy, it's equally true that the whippersnappers have no clue how to effectively work with a good legal secretary. One of the problems is that there are very few of them any more; smart young people now go to law school instead (and good for them).

A *good* legal secretary, one that could read your mind and get things done the way you wanted, is a terrific way to leverage your time. Yes, typing a cover letter is quicker than dictating one if you have to pencil corrections and do three rounds of retyping. OTOH, handing the indenture draft to your secretary with the comment "please get this to Dewey at Dewey Cheatham" - and have a perfectly typed, appropriately writtn cover letter magically appear, with file copies etc. - is magic indeed.

By Old School is sometimes the Best School on 2013 06 28, 3:24 pm CDT

Economy still sucks. Nobody with the capability to fix it seems to care. Leads me to believe that this is how it was designed by the powers that be and things are unfolding as intended.

By You call this coffee!? on 2013 06 28, 3:44 pm CDT

"Lawyers do indeed do “more than type”. They have to hunt through their files to find previously written documents on a similar issue, open the file, do a “find” command for the prior clients name and data, do a “replace” for the current client, figure out how long the document (letter, motion…) would have taken if they actually drafted it from scratch (horrors!), and add that amount to the client’s bill. No secretary needed for such (sadly all too normal) shenanigans."

You left out the word "some."

I have fired so-called lawyers for doing just that.

I don't know who you hang out with, but almost all lawyers I know and have worked with bill honestly. I will bill 1/2 hour for a 20 page declaration and 6 hours for a three paragraph letter, if that is the actual, necessary time I spent on the the respective tasks. My clients understand and appreciate what I am doing because i communicate closely and respectfully with them.

The canard that all (or even most) lawyers pad their bills is an unfair slam on honest and hardworking attorneys who perform their services ethically every day. If all you see around you are dishonest lawyers, it may be time for you to consider changing your surroundings.

By Been There on 2013 06 28, 4:36 pm CDT

As a long-term legal secretary, let me just say that we, as a profession, do far more than just type. My area of expertise is litigation. I must be knowledgeable of all the procedural requirements to see a case through from initial filing to final determination. I must have the ability to draft basic pleadings, to interact with clients, witnesses and experts, to maintain docketing programs, to review, summarize and manage discovery materials and keep up to speed on all technology used in litigation practice. So, sure, newer attorneys and/or associates can certainly be encouraged to do their own typing, but unless accommodations are made for a reduction in billable hours, those same attorneys will not be doing file maintenance, service of process, electronic filing, or even making copies for those jurisdictions were service still takes place by mail.

By Shoot My Own Food on 2013 06 28, 6:17 pm CDT

Law is now just another business, and the bottom line is all that matters. Client pressures are greater than ever, so firms look for ways to squeeze more work out of fewer people. The result is a factory-like atmosphere often enough, isolating and not very collegial. And yes, reducing or eliminating secretaries means lawyers are doing tasks that are really a waste of their training, but I suspect they are finding ways to bill clients for it so maybe it helps the bottom line. Until the clients figure out what is happening.

I spent the bulk of my career in a different era. For most of it, even as an associate, I had one secretary to do just my work. That changed toward the end, when I was in a 4-1 sharing group, but it made sense and worked just fine. But I am glad I had the chance to enjoy the earlier experience. Our firm was a happier place then, my secretaries were indeed friends as well as colleagues, and my longest-working one was even my "associate" for one trial I was trying to do on the cheap for a client, and very effective at it (she was also very distracting to my opposing counsel in court, which did not hurt). She left at a perfect time, to my great sorrow and regret, marrying the GC of a client. I had two other superb secretaries as well, and they did everything I needed. They knew court procedure at the mechanical level better than I did, ran interference with the clerks, process servers, opposing counsel, knew my clients, knew what calls to put through and which to defer, and on and on.

I seriously doubt I would become a lawyer today. It is a very different profession from the one I entered, even from the one I was forced to leave nearly a dozen years ago for health reasons. I feel for those struggling in the profession now, among them my three kids, two of whom have taken jobs outside the law after BigLaw stints which they did not like despite the money, one of whom has a small practice in a rural area which she enjoys but only because she is very creative about obtaining work and a superb time manager.

By Retired Dinosaur on 2013 06 28, 9:16 pm CDT

Clarification to my #14.

To dispel any confusion, I have fired lawyers for misrepresenting the time to perform a legal task, not for leaving out the word "some."

If I had run the post past my secretary, she would have caught that . . . . .

By Been There on 2013 06 28, 9:26 pm CDT

@Marcboston you completely forgot .... and then send to the Word Processing to print after it has already been printed by request from another attorney who did not check to make sure it wasn't already printed. My favorite is converting PDFs to word by three attorneys at different times during the month - the exact same document or printing emails within emails within emails where the emails within are dupes of other emails. Sometimes printed 6-8 times. I could go on and on and on.

By Sandy on 2013 06 28, 10:26 pm CDT

Yes, yes. I will stipulate that you can go on and on.

By B. McLeod on 2013 06 28, 10:49 pm CDT

#11 & #15...does your job include reading and commenting on ABA Journal posts during the middle of the day?

By Call Me Obvious on 2013 07 01, 5:15 pm CDT

I do say that without a secretary like myself, Mr. Wickersham would be hard pressed indeed to reset the gas lamp, crank the Victrola, and I do mean crank, with the latest Caruso recording and properly type his pleadings, in triple onion skin no less! My shorthand is second to none (although it does seem to be growing shorter by the year). I do need to order some more foolscap before the week-end. Toodle-oo!

By Mrs. Crutchfield on 2013 07 03, 6:29 pm CDT

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