Legal secretaries 2.0

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With an assist to Ron Friedmann‘s Strategic Legal Technology blog for locating the story, here’s another neat law firm innovation that qualifies as a “why didn’t we think of that?” moment. A Buffalo law firm, Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham & Coppola LLC (I’m sure glad I don’t answer the phones there), is giving each of its legal secretaries a specialty for which she’s responsible and to which she can devote her attention and training, rather than assigning her to work for a specific lawyer. Here’s the managing partner, Tony Rupp, with the details:

“We have secretaries specializing in different fields,” Rupp said. “We have someone who’s filing, someone who’s calendaring, someone who’s filing motions and several typists who are concentrating on transcribing the dictation and producing the documents.”

This is a great idea, and it highlights an area in which law firms have been extremely slow to innovate: workflow. The traditional alignment of one lawyer -> one secretary still makes sense in a solo practice, but in a firm with multiple lawyers and a large volume and range of tasks to perform, keeping that alignment just encourages redundancy and inefficiency.

Allowing secretaries to focus on and develop expertise in one particular area creates clear channels through with assignments can flow much more easily and efficiently. Lawyers have specialties; why shouldn’t their secretaries have them too? More importantly, logistics is revolutionizing commerce worldwide, and while a study of law firm logistics (or rather, the near-complete lack thereof) would be a major undertaking, it’s still encouraging to see even one example of a firm willing to rethink how it accomplishes its daily work.

Now, that said, what disappoints me about this effort is that the secretaries’ specialties are still largely clerical and administrative. Filing, calendaring, taking messages — it’s alarming that the firm still requires “several typists” to transcribe dictation — these are tasks that trained professionals should have moved beyond by now. Almost all the clerical or administrative tasks that a 1980s legal secretary carried out can now be accomplished by software. Grouping the secretaries according to specialty is a great idea, but restricting their specialties to the likes of dictation and filing is not.

(And from a purely HR standpoint, it effectively reduces the secretary’s ability to find work elsewhere down the line, because she’s no longer trained to multitask, which is still what most businesses ask of their administrative professionals.)

Lawyers have a hard enough time re-engineering the way their own practices work, let alone their secretaries’ jobs. While I like what this firm has started to do, I would’ve been happier if it had gone the next logical step and begun viewing the secretarial staff not in the traditional terms of clerical and calendaring assistance, but as trained professionals with the talent and motivation to constantly move up the value chain.

Software advances have long since given lawyers motive and opportunity to reconsider how they use their secretaries. Most lawyers haven’t taken advantage, preferring at best to view the software as better equipment for their secretaries’ continued clerical tasks. (There are exceptions: quite a few lawyers have long been sending their secretaries to file motions or attend closings, but while this was a good idea at the time, the age of e-filing and title insurance is taking these tasks away too.)

A really far-sighted law firm would give its secretaries the chance to “skill up” and take on more responsibility, accomplishing more advanced tasks. If I ran a firm, in fact, I’d put my secretaries in charge of, well, logistics.

Secretaries already keep most lawyers’ practices from going off the rails administratively and financially, and their organizational skills (make no mistake, a critical talent in a law firm) are superb. Let them analyze the firm’s logistics, constantly reassigning talent and upgrading tools to make the whole firm work more effectively and efficiently. Most would appreciate the confidence you’ve shown them and the opportunity to enhance their skills and experience in what will be a key 21st-century field.

Change “secretary” to “workflow manager” or “logistics director,” and you’ve accomplished three great things at once: increased the role of software in handling clerical and financial duties, reassigned your valuable secretarial help up the productivity chain, and attended to an area in which you can find real efficiencies and carve out a true competitve advantage over other firms. Any law firms out there doing just that?

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3 Responses to “Legal secretaries 2.0”

  1. Julie Chamard

    Hi,
    I like your article. I would like to hear from you about something because there seems to be a paradox in what we expect from a legal secretaries and from admin. support.

    In your article you mentioned that it’s important to give an added value to the role of the secretaries, to give them not only clerical work but more logistics work and to develop their skills so they can accomplish more. I think it’s great to see the secretary more as a partner in the success of the business but to me this “model” implicate the presence of the admin support in place. In another article you mentioned that the new law firms are going more more into external services, on line services (meaning that all the admin#clerical support doesn’t need to be inside the business).
    Are the two realities concealable and how?

    Do you have other examples of law firm who have innovate with their administrative structure?

    Thank you very much.

    Hope my English is not to hard to understand!

    Julie Chamard

  2. Jordan Furlong

    Julie, thanks for your comment! It’s remarkable, re-reading a post I wrote more than 5 1/2 years ago, that so little has changed for the better in how lawyers and law firms view their secretaries. The recent spate of announcements regarding mass secretarial layoffs at a number of large law firms just accentuates how little the dialogue has advanced. I’ll be exploring this more in a new post shortly, but it seems to me that there are three different trends intersecting on this issue.

    The first is that lawyers seem dead-set on viewing “secretaries” in almost entirely clerical and basic administrative roles (and, I daresay, more than a few secretaries still view themselves that way), and that lawyers fundamentally disrespect these functions as low-value and fungible. That is only going to end poorly for the secretaries.

    The second is that most law firms still seem incapable of seriously reconsidering how work is performed inside their operations, preferring to reduce costs by firing people, not by delegating truly fungible tasks to outside sources and upskilling their existing secretarial staff to take on more managerial-type behaviour (law firm culture is a huge issue here — the idea of “secretaries” who “manage” significant processes is probably more than many lawyers can process.)

    And the third is that many law firms appear to have missed the point of outsourcing basic tasks altogether: the idea is not to reduce bodies in cubicles and lower payroll, but to maximize the productivity of in-house resources by aligning people with the highest use of their skills and talents (letting them “practice to the limits of their license,” in the words of a phrase currently making the rounds in medical circles).

    What we need to do is stop looking at secretaries and thinking “dictation” or “calendaring,” and drawing the most obvious conclusions. We need to look at this position — executive assistant to skilled legal professional — and reimagine what roles this person could play and what value they could deliver. It need not and should not be limited to clerical or administrative work, as useful as those still continue to be. It could be knowledge management, client communication, professional development, marketing, even business development. These are all roles for which knowledge and skills can be learned and for which aptitude is as likely to be found among trained and experienced secretaries as among any other candidate for the position.

    Someone whose skill set is entirely limited to “clerical” tasks will have a hard time staying employed within law firms — but similarly, a lawyer whose skill set is limited to carrying out basic routines and filling in legal forms is going to be equally challenged. Everyone has to raise their game in this new environment — they just need to be given the opportunity to do so.

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