Della Street is history. The confidant and secretary of TV lawyer Perry Mason almost certainly wouldn’t have recognized the role of her counterpart today.
Now legal secretaries are often called legal assistants–for good reason. More and more they specialize in particular areas of the law. And many of them are more involved in the production of the legal work.
“When a pleading comes in, within 24 hours I’m drafting a shell of a response myself, and then when the attorneys are ready they can shove in the arguments,” says Debi McCall, one of the more senior legal secretaries at Indianapolis’ Barnes & Thornburg. “They don’t have to do as much legwork as they used to.”
Many firms now use a team approach to assigning secretarial work. A typical arrangement might have a team of several secretaries, each of whom works for three lawyers. But they also become part of a matrix with others for backup assignments, so if one of them is absent or overloaded with work, others smoothly fill in.
These secretaries work collaboratively in pooling their clerical, legal, technical, administrative and organizational skills.
“It’s now about leveraging secretarial talent through teamwork, which mirrors what lawyers are doing with practice management and practice groups,” says consultant Nancy J. Siegel of San Francisco. “The real difference is that the secretary now is in effect managing a small practice.”
The driving forces that helped make Della Street a relic are rapid changes in technology and society. The advent of voice mail, word processing software, templates, e-mail and digital data ended the need for one-on-one secretaries who were handy with carbon paper.
Technology has picked up the pace of legal work and may be the biggest reason for the changing role of legal secretaries, says Jean A. Pawlow, a member of the executive committee of Washington, D.C.’s Miller & Chevalier.
“There used to be some built-in lag time before a product was finalized,” says Pawlow, who worked as a legal secretary before going to law school. “Now there is more pressure to have everything done instantly, not even as a fax but as an e-mail attachment. It’s easy to make mistakes, and that highlights the need for a good legal assistant.”
Speaking about her assistant, Linda Scott, Pawlow says, “She’s my right hand in the office. I can do my work in a hotel room and send it to her.”
Experience Pays Off
The huge growth of law firms has almost outrun the supply of qualified legal secretaries. “Firms in big cities are struggling to attract talented people,” Siegel says. “Money helps, and here in San Francisco they’re getting from $45,000 to $70,000 with many really experienced legal secretaries getting in the 60s.”
San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster has begun focusing on growing its own crop of modern legal secretaries. The move was prompted in part, says Hilary O’Brien, the office’s director of administration, by local business colleges that stopped offering courses for those interested in becoming legal secretaries.
“Now we try to bring in junior people as administrative or file clerks, and some of those who do really well and build computer skills we move to the secretarial training program,” O’Brien says.
Lawyer-secretary relationships are so important and the roles so fluid that Morrison & Foerster has developed an online handbook with guidelines and tips for working together. The firm also asks new lawyers and secretaries to meet and review a checklist of tasks, working styles and preferences.
Morrison & Foerster is considering a title change away from “legal secretary,” O’Brien says. “More and more attorneys now refer to them as assistants.”
McCall of Barnes & Thornburg says that she uses both titles, depending on how she feels about the task at the time. “But,” she offers, “on my tax form it says ‘legal secretary.’ ”