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Behind Every Lawyer there’s an Assistant

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Behind every group of lawyers stands another group of vitally important assistants who often present the lawyers' image to the public. These assistants are known by various job titles-legal secretary, administrative secretary, word processing operator, legal assistant, paralegal, receptionist, investigator, law clerk, etc. In the smallest office, all of these job titles and the functions they represent may be encompassed in a single job called legal secretary. In larger offices, functional specialization may occur so that different classes or groups of "legal assistants" are created.

The term "legal assistant" is used in the broadest sense to include all those non-lawyer employees who assist practitioners in the drafting and typing of documents, the collection of information, the maintenance of files and records, docketing, timekeeping, bookkeeping, and other tasks of a clerical, supportive and paraprofessional nature. Some law offices employ the same title in a more restrictive sense to apply only to paraprofessional staff.


A legal assistant greets clients, answers the telephone, produces the paperwork which is so vital to a law practice and files documents with the county or the court. A legal assistant meets the client on a first visit to the office and makes him or her at home-or sets the wrong tone from the start. The way a telephone call is answered can enhance or hurt the lawyer's practice and image. The legal secretary and other support staff are very important people! Remember that your view of the local bank is colored more by the teller who serves you than by the bank's president.

A law office is sometimes an exciting place. In the neighborhood type of practice, the law office deals with every aspect of human life: premarital agreements and divorces, adoptions, disputes between neighbors and business partners, immigration, crimes of every sort, the problems of the consumer and those of the taxed. Some legal organizations are involved in very large "deals"- friendly and unfriendly takeovers, price wars, purchases involving millions and sometimes billions of dollars, intangible property rights, and major disasters. Law office employees are often a part of these interesting human processes, and they play an important role in their resolution. In many offices, the work is varied and the people one is called upon to deal with are interesting.

If lawyers are the brains of the law office, then the support staff provides the backbone. A law office cannot function effectively without dedicated, hardworking non-lawyer employees.

Some of the guidelines contained in this chapter will lead, in the future, to more productive working relationships between lawyers and those vital non-legal assistants without whom lawyers could not function.

Changing Functions

Traditionally, most lawyers depended upon a single assistant for many support functions: shorthand and typing, answering the telephone, keeping a calendar, drafting simple legal forms and documents, filing, time keeping, personal services like fetching coffee, greeting clients, and many other tasks. Two factors have begun to alter the traditional lawyer-secretary relationship which for so many years has been the mainstay of law offices. The first is rising income expectations of both lawyers and secretaries. The second is the automation of the typing function, called word processing.

In former times, young lawyers worked for little, and legal secretaries were generally paid as supplemental wage earners, not bread winners. Many legal tasks required by clients, that did not generate much in fees, could be performed by young lawyers and law clerks since their compensation was low. The great jump in starting salaries of new law school graduates boosted interest in the so- called paralegal assistant. These non-lawyer employees can generally perform legal tasks at lower cost than young lawyers.

This new member of the law office team is trained in some aspects of law, either through formal instruction at a school, or through on-the-job training in a law office. Many of the tasks now assigned to the paralegal were once (and in many offices still are) performed by legal secretaries. Many experienced senior legal secretaries have been promoted, in some measure, to the ranks of paralegals, often in title if not in pay. And some have given up the title and some of the functions of being a secretary in favor of this new occupation.

Where the paralegal functions have been carefully separated from the tasks of legal secretaries, the job content of the latter group has generally diminished since they no longer perform "paralegal" tasks.

At the same time, the technology of word processing and machine dictation has begun to erode the most cherished old secretarial skill, shorthand. The use of dictation equipment is so much more efficient for the lawyer and for the secretary that more and more law offices are insisting on its exclusive use. Where shorthand use persists, rationalizations are used to excuse it. (Example: It's more efficient for short letters. I can't talk to a machine.) But the trend is clear. The economics of machine dictation make its use mandatory. Shorthand is doomed.

The role of the legal secretary has changed dramatically in recent years. In the late seventies and early eighties, with the advent of word processing, the typing function gradually moved to centers where dedicated word processors performed more and more of the typing and document production. The use of full-time operators was necessary to maximize the use of very expensive equipment. During the mid-eighties, a revolution in word processing equipment took place. Equipment moved from the realm of $10,000 machines to personal computers with relatively inexpensive word processing software. As a result the word processing operator moved from a center and back to the secretarial workstation.

What is found commonly today is a secretary or legal assistant who performs administrative work and also produces most of the paperwork on a word processing personal computer. There may still be a "center," but this facility is generally used for very long documents, and backup when legal assistants are absent.

Another change which is being evidenced is the emergence of a personal computer-word processor at the lawyer's desk. Lawyers today are revising their own documents, searching by computer for standard forms which they can amend to meet a new fact situation, and researching at their desks through LEXIS and other data bases.

The Lawyer-Legal Assistant Team

Much of the lawyer's work involves preventive law. If a lawyer is successful in preventing serious problems for clients through negotiations and consultation, other potential problems will be mitigated. In this process of practicing preventive law, timing is of vital importance. The role of the legal assistant as part of the team can best be illustrated in this context. A whole set of negotiations may backfire if a telephone call is not returned or is placed in the wrong sequence, or if a telephone message is not relayed prior to a negotiating session. A legal assistant must try to stay one step ahead of the lawyer wherever possible. If the assistant knows that the attorney is going to discuss a particular problem at a meeting, the assistant should arm the lawyer in advance with needed papers. When the lawyer is busy, he or she may not even acknowledge this valuable assist. The attorney may not have time to say "thank you," but it should be appreciated when it comes time for evaluations and salary increases.

In the preparation of documents and contracts, the legal assistant is also part of the team. Every legal document has a structure in which one part supports or complements the other. As a will is typed, for example, and something strikes the typist as "just not right" in the way certain provisions relate to other provisions, these questions should be communicated to the attorney. It may be that an interruption took place during the preparation of the provision and that important items were inadvertently dictated. If there is, in fact, no inconsistency, the attorney should take the time to explain why the document was prepared the way it was. The next time the word processor notices those particular provisions he or she will understand more clearly what is being typed.

One of the changes happening in some law offices is that the "team" has grown from one lawyer aided by a secretary to a group of people. This may be two or three lawyers, an administrative assistant, a paralegal and a word processing operator, or some other arrangement of jobs in which professional and support functions are shared. Such teams are more difficult to organize and manage than two-person teams, but they can be much more efficient than the traditional mode, resulting in better service to clients at lower cost.

The Legal Assistant's Role in the Office

The legal assistant in the smaller, less specialized law office wears many hats, performs many varied tasks. It is vital that the assistant fully understand the importance and significance of the several roles he or she plays in the firm's overall operation.

Accounting: Although many secretaries do not have any direct bookkeeping responsibility for the routine entry of figures and posting of accounts, all have an important function in assisting the bookkeeping operation. No entry can be made or account credited unless someone notifies the bookkeeper to make the entry or credit the account. This really may be the lawyer's obligation, but often he or she is too busy to remember to carry through on this kind of internal office detail. The assistant must have a general understanding of the accounting procedures followed by the firm and must assist in helping the lawyers comply with the requirements of the system. If the lawyer places a long distance phone call, the aide should inquire concerning the name of the client to be charged and complete the telephone slip if necessary.

Often the legal assistant is the person responsible for entering time directly to the firm's computer through the terminal at the desk. Accuracy tends to be enhanced by entry by someone with a working familiarity with clients' names.

Filing Functions: Even the most sophisticated law firm filing system places some burden on legal assistants for adherence to the system and for assistance. Every employee must take some responsibility for keeping files in order.
Before files are returned to the file room it is a good idea for secretaries to examine them to see whether newly executed documents are conformed. The process of conforming papers includes writing the signatures of the person or persons who executed the original document on the copy being retained by the firm. Usually the name which is written is followed with the designation "/s/" which indicates that it is not the signature of the original signer, but rather a copy of the signature written by someone else. If the signature is typed on the conformed copy it is not necessary to use the *7s/" designation.

Any person can assist the filing personnel in the performance of their duties, by placing file reference numbers or names on the copy to be filed before it is sent to a file clerk. Sometimes all that is required is for the secretary or the lawyer to circle the proper file name somewhere in the contents of the letter or document. If this is not possible, the name or number may be written near the top of the paper. File reference marking will also help others notice a misfiled document or letter in another file at some future time.

Timekeeping

Lawyers bill much of their work on the basis of the time it takes. A good secretary can be an invaluable help in increasing the time which a lawyer records for billing. The time a secretary spends helping the lawyer to increase his or her time recording means money.

One office administrator of a large Mid-West firm provided the following account as to how secretarial initiative helped her boss in better timekeeping habits:

One attorney in our office was converted to time records by his secretary. She resented his name appearing on the 'Time Record Delinquent List" each week. She started making out a time slip on each phone call and meeting, leaving out only the actual time. Each morning when her boss arrived, she would go into his office with the slips she had completed, fill in the time entries, and then ask the attorney for the balance of his time from the prior day. She indicates that this takes a maximum of ten minutes of the lawyer's time each day and ten minutes of hers. This was approximately one hour less in total time from what they were spending when they tried to bring all the slips up to date at the end of each month, no great savings of either attorney or secretarial time. However the attorney's time report started indicating between ten and seventeen more hours each month after he and his secretary converted to this method.


About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

About LawCrossing
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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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