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Legal Secretary Floating

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Summary: The rise of reserve staff in the post-recession economy makes secretarial floating a more attractive option to legal secretaries.

"Floating" may be one of the most attractive and opportunistic employment options to consider.

It is predicted that over the next year, law firms will increasingly begin to recruit floaters (sometimes referred to as reserve staff). This makes perfect sense. As the recession continues to improve, law firms will experience a barrage of staffing changes, and will be adding new hires in many areas of the law firm.

In the recent past, many legal secretaries have been reluctant to seriously consider floating opportunities as a viable employment option. However, this trend may be reversing itself. Consider the four main reasons:
  • Change: Many legal secretaries may opt to change their area of law.
  • Demand: Law firms will have an increasing need for floaters.
  • Respect: The floating option is gaining a greater sense of respect within the legal community.
  • Flexibility: Legal secretaries understand that the floating option provides certain flexibilities and possibilities that may not be available to non-floaters.
Legal secretaries recognize that the interview process to be offered a floating position is very quick! The appeal of a legal secretary only having to participate in one interview before receiving an offer, as opposed to two or three interviews for a non-floater role, is a major consideration. This type of interview process is less demanding in terms of time and energy, and allows the legal secretary to more easily join the law firm they desire.

The Floating Evolution

Floating continues to gain a level of acceptance that may have been lacking in years past. It is evolving.

How has the floating legal secretary evolved? Many years ago, law firms were presented with the situation, due to client confidentiality and the importance of the case file, where they preferred an actual legal secretarial employee of their firm to cover the absences of other legal secretaries. Some of these absences included vacations, illnesses, medical leaves, resignations, and terminations. Temporary legal secretaries, who are not employees of the law firm, were typically assigned to cover other absences deemed less critical. Law firms quickly recognized the tremendous benefit legal secretarial floaters provided to their businesses.

Law firms soon began to increase their respective floating staffs due to the value and flexibility of floaters. Unlike temporary legal secretaries, floating staffs were easily mobilized and were familiar with the protocol and procedures of the law firms they served. Soon thereafter, law firms recognized that floating staffs were excellent training grounds for recruitment purposes for their own future legal secretarial job vacancies.

Currently, most law firms have floating staffs that are proportionate to their overall office size. However, as the economy improves, floating staffs will increase according to workload, urgency, and need.

Pros and Cons

Just like any other employment option, there are positives, negatives, and challenges. However, after much collaboration with legal secretaries, the positives clearly out-weigh the negatives. This may not have been true in the recent past.

Legal secretaries have explained that floating has evolved into a practical employment solution for many of their co-workers, and even themselves. This may explain why more and more legal secretaries, during this recession, are beginning to seriously consider floating as a realistic employment option.

While the floating legal secretarial role is quite similar from law firm to law firm, the expectations may vary greatly. Thus, not all floating situations are the same. Each floating role must be individually evaluated.

For example, some law firms prefer their floating staff to remain within the floating role for a certain period of time before being able to inquire about a stationary opening within the firm.

On the other hand, some law firms are quick to move floaters into a vacant stationary role without consideration for the length of time the floater has been employed.

Typically, a floater's performance is weighed against the law firm’s urgency to fill the stationary opening. If the scales tip in the favor of "urgency," then a floater who is performing according to an acceptable standard and is suitable for the role may be offered the stationary position.

Why are certain legal secretaries more adaptive to a floating role? It depends upon whom you ask. It appears that the role of a floater is still evolving and is subject to debate. The opinions vary, which tends to substantiate the variety of floating experiences legal secretaries may have had during their careers.

But the legal secretaries who appear to have the most success within a floating role may be able to adapt to change more easily, and may be more focused on the bigger picture.

In other words, these legal secretaries view the floating role as a foot-in-the-door, and work hard toward identifying a role within the firm. They tend to be more focused on joining the right law firm, as opposed to finding the perfect job.

Many outsiders may be surprised to learn that the best floaters share similar qualities as other successful non-floating legal secretaries. The performance gap between floaters and non-floaters is shrinking. In fact, many non-floating legal secretaries that have entered the workforce over the past decade have themselves floated at one time or another.

They both could share a combination of several characteristics, including:
  • multi-task oriented;
  • team players;
  • excellent organizational skills;
  • deadline-oriented;
  • effective communicators;
  • pro-active;
  • current technically proficient skills;
  • reliable & prompt; and
  • awareness & responsiveness.
Specifically, floaters tend to offer a wide range of exposure to a various legal practice groups. Legal secretarial floaters with the qualities described above are usually offered stationary roles within a matter of weeks. Law firms do not want them to slip away.

Many previous and current floaters have mentioned that they particularly enjoy the freedom of the floating role. As a floater, if you are unhappy supporting a difficult lawyer, you may be able to request a transfer to another assignment. This may be easily achieved as a floater.

A floater may look forward to working in many departments gaining invaluable exposure and experience within a variety of legal practice groups.

Legal secretaries who tend to struggle with a floating role may be more focused on their immediate situation, and are less prone to adapting to change. I have heard, time and time again, that certain floaters go through the motions and do not perform at a level that warrants a move into a stationary role. Many feel that if they "do the time," then they should be automatically considered for a vacant legal secretarial opening within the firm. While this sense of entitlement may have been true in the past, tenure is no longer one of the primary considerations.

If floaters do not perform at a high level and provide the incentive for law firms to upgrade their status to stationary roles, they may linger for many months as a floater. In some instances, floaters who are under-achieving may never be offered a stationary role until they raise their level of performance. The burden of responsibility may reside on the floater to demonstrate that he or she deserves to be removed from a floating opportunity and into a stationary role within the law firm.

In all fairness, performing as a floater can be challenging. For example, constantly having to change your surroundings and telephone extension becomes tiresome for many people who prefer the security of knowing where they will be working and what they will be doing.

Not being able to easily connect with the existing staff is another concern that floaters express. When floaters move from group to group for short assignments, they do not have the time to form relationships with their co-workers. They may feel disconnected from the firm.

Additionally, since floaters are covering the absences of other legal secretaries, they do not have their own desks in which to place their belongings and settle in. This may explain why some floaters feel transient, and even transparent.


Overall, floating can be a terrific employment option for many legal secretaries who can adapt to change and can stay focused on the big picture. When floaters interview for employment, they should determine the quality of the law firm and the type of track record that effective floaters have had within the firm. Namely, how soon can a floater inquire about a stationary role?

Floaters should view their situations as an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities on the job and create a reputation as a top-notch legal secretary.

Law firms notice the high-achievers and will approach the best floaters in a reasonable amount of time with non-floating opportunities.

See the following articles for more information:

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