The secretarial canary in the law firm coal mine

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“A really far-sighted law firm would give its secretaries the chance to ‘skill up’ and take on more responsibility, accomplishing more advanced tasks. … 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 competitive advantage over other firms.”

- Yours truly, “Legal secretaries 2.0,” January 24, 2008

In recent months, a number of major law firms have offered buyouts to legal secretaries, accelerating a trend that began before the downturn. This week New York law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP cut about 110 staff positions, including about 60 legal secretaries. “I would imagine that the remaining secretaries are going to take on a heavier workload,” said Lee Glick, a legal secretary with Weil who has worked there more than 25 years and still has a job.

- The Wall Street Journal, “Legal Secretary, a Dying Job,” June 27, 2013

Contrasts like this one guarantee that I’m at no risk of overestimating my impact on the business of law.

I had fond hopes, 5 1/2 years ago, that law firms might take advantage of a dynamic environment and re-engineer their organizational workflow. Recognizing that secretaries’ purely clerical tasks could be done more efficiently elsewhere, for example, they would outsource or automate those tasks and liberate secretaries to take on more challenging, valuable and productive work.

As it turned out, however, firms only got as far as the first step: they sent the work to lower-cost providers. Then, instead of upgrading the qualifications of their loyal and experienced secretaries, they simply canned them. Surviving secretaries at a growing number of law firms are now expected to serve four lawyers at once — at some firms, that number is going as high as six or seven. Hands up if you think either the secretary or the lawyers are going to be better off as a result.

Five years ago, in an atmosphere of financial and social crisis, law firms threw numerous staff and associates overboard, in an effort to keep profitability levels from plummeting and sparking a rainmaker exodus. Not the best tactic in the world, but understandable at the time. Today, though, it’s as if those sacrifices were never made — the purges have intensified (staff, associates, and now other partners) as firms target for elimination any perceived drain on profits.

Based on all these cuts, I’m left to conclude that law firms apparently wish to be populated exclusively by extremely high-earning equity partners. In a magical land where complex legal businesses were run by invisible fairies, that would be a pretty nice outcome. In our world, however, where those partners need actual people to make their profits possible, the latest round of bloodletting bears a closer resemblance to profit-preserving cannibalization — a tactic that has its short-term merits, I suppose, but few long-term strategic advantages.

I want to take a look at what’s happening with law firm secretaries, and then I want to use that to illustrate what I feel is a growing, and serious, issue at the heart of law firm management.

First, why has it come to this: the evisceration of the legal secretary role? I can see three factors intersecting at the same time:

1. Many lawyers seem determined to view “secretaries” in their stereotypical role of clerical helpers, and as clerical tasks inevitably migrate to machines, secretaries themselves are perceived as serving no further purpose. I see secretaries differently: as lawyers’ “managers,” the people who quietly organize lawyers’ lives and enable them to practise law productively and effectively. The emergence of new technologies does not remove the need for lawyer management; if anything, it intensifies it. But if you really believe that a legal secretary performs low-value and easily replaceable functions, you will treat that position accordingly.

2. Many law firms seem equally incapable, even with countless high-tech tools and processes now at their disposal, of reconfiguring their workflow to be more sophisticated and cost-effective. The smart way to improve profitability is to outsource truly fungible tasks and upskill your existing resources (including, but not limited to, secretaries)  to take on more complex tasks that can deliver more value and/or reduce internal inefficiency. The stupid way to improve profitability is to fire people and give their work to their frightened surviving colleagues, thereby reducing personnel costs. Many law firms, near as I can tell, are choosing stupid.

3. Profitability pressures in law firms (more about that in a moment) have short-circuited any creative impulses that might have led firms to different outcomes for their secretaries. For instance: many lawyers still struggle with practice basics like client communication, marketing, and professional development. They would benefit tremendously from a dedicated resource whose job is to manage and organize all these aspects of their career — someone who has worked with them for years and knows them very well. If firms are going to reassign traditional secretarial duties elsewhere (and there’s good reason for them to do so), why not divert secretaries into these high-value and highly necessary roles, rather than just cutting them loose altogether? It’s not just a lost job, but also a lost opportunity.

It’s on that last point, I think, that we approach the heart of the problem. Law firms could help secretaries reimagine their roles, add more value to the firm, improve morale, and save jobs — they could do all these things, if they wanted to. But they don’t.  They don’t care about these things nearly as much as they care about maintaining or growing profitability. And the intensity with which law firms have come to care about profitability is starting to look a little sociopathic.

Something has gone seriously wrong at the core of a number of law firms. I don’t how else to describe it except as a mean streak – a level of selfishness and ruthlessness among decision-makers that we’ve not seen before. The triggering event was probably the massive change in client behaviour and the deeply unnerving drop in business that followed, combined with lawyers’ utter inability to adjust their own practices in response. But it seems to me that many lawyers aren’t just troubled or worried by what’s happening — they’re angry. Their income has fallen, and they’ve taken it personally, because that was income to which they were entitled. They’re feeling victimized, hard done by — and they’re lashing out, seeking instant remedies for themselves regardless of the long-term costs to others.

I’m not sure what it is about this latest round of cuts that feels wrong to me. Maybe it’s that it just seems so petty. You need to fire a secretary who earns a fraction of your annual billings in order to save your firm? That’s unlikely. You need to fire her in order to maintain the profitability to which you’ve become accustomed? That’s unseemly. They say you can judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and I think the same applies to law firms. And I wouldn’t feel very proud to be a member of some of these law firms right now.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

 

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20 Responses to “The secretarial canary in the law firm coal mine”

  1. Leah Beckham

    One of the best posts yet. I am astonished everyday by law firm partners’ complete and total commitment to the destruction of their profession.

  2. Fay S.

    Jordan, this is a great post!

    The assumption you’re making however is that most (all?) secretaries are willing to change in order to keep their jobs, if only the firms would offer it. I’m not sure that’s the case.

    In my personal experience (as an associate in two BigLaw firms), secretaries are not interested in change, at all! They don’t want to grow or learn to take on any kinds of challenges. When I had matters that needed filing in jurisdictions outside their comfort zone, they would run screaming to the HR director, and then I was the one that got in trouble for asking them to do something new. Perhaps this is not the norm – maybe I just had an unfortunate experience – but maybe not.

    On the whole, I imagine that you’re correct. Most people, faced with a layoff will do whatever it takes to keep their jobs. But short of that extreme situation, the secretaries I’ve encountered would need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to any kind of retraining.

  3. Ron Friedmann

    Excellent post. I started observing the changing role of secretaries over 20 years ago when I was at a large firm that was one of the first to adopt PCs for lawyers. I was a manager at that firm and raised the topic – pointing out that secretaries were now under-utilized and we needed to re-think their role – with other managers and with partners. Even in a time when lay-offs were rare, no one in the partnership or management wanted to tackle the problem.

    This speaks to the broader problem in legal organizations: neither organizations (firms, departments, government) nor individual employees seem particularly receptive to examine how they work and consider changes.

    Fay S raises a valid point.. In my personal, anecdotal experience, secretaries are about as willing as partners are to change what they do and how they work. Which is not all that much.

  4. Sam

    Great post! We are seeing more change in the UK and I have experience of working with a firm that closed over 100 roles and started on the journey of changing the secretarial role. The introduction of an outsourced document support team was a catalyst for changing both secretary and fee earner work practices but without a clear strategy the

    To Fay S’s point many secretaries I worked with had been in the same organisation/team/chair for 20 years so change was difficult for them and surrounded by Partners who had absolutely no intention (or urgent need) to change only reinforced their belief they they need not change.

    Many UK law firms are seeking a broader range of skills from their secretaries – not just good document skills. It will be interesting to see how other US firms approach this.

  5. Monick

    Excellent article. As a former legal secretary/law clerk, now lawyer, I’ve had enough opportunities to experience the indelicate foot of entitlement practiced by some lawyers & firms (and many good ones as well). To Fay’s comment, I’m convinced the answer lies in corporate culture. If your secretary is buried in tasks and what seems like an unbearable backlog in dictation, without relief (despite requests), and the potential of being fired constantly lingers in the air, yes, she or he may well not appreciate a new and unknown task. However, in the proper corporate culture, where the firm is sensitive to workload, and professional development is not only expected but encouraged, I believe you will find a whole lot of secretaries who genuinely do want more.

  6. George Wilkinson

    Very thought-provoking. The key word in your post is “entitled” – the partners’ sense of entitlement is all pervasive in most law firms, and skews nearly all decision making.

  7. Monica

    Jordan, thanks for an excellent article. I only read your 2008 article this morning as well and how Orwellian of you. I must agree with both Fay and Monick. The majority of secretaries or “Legal Administrative Assistants” as some prefer today do NOT embrace change. Those I have met that do run towards a challenge (as to running to HR screaming) work in firms that build a culture of empowerment, continuing education and public valuing of each team member’s skill and productivity. “Old school” culture produces old school thought processes, even about one’s self. In my last few years as a vendor I have met many secretaries who have blatantly said they have no interest in learning what I am presenting because they only have X number of weeks/months/years until they retire. Some days it makes me quite sad.

  8. Rob Thomas

    Excellent, thought-provoking article. I want to add to this discussion the changes that we have seen in the role of administrators of many corporate law departments, which is a positive indication that the secretary role can evolve into something much more productive to the organization.

    When we first introduce Serengeti’s e-billing/matter management to coporate law departments, we sometimes get negative reactions from the staff who wonder what they will do with their time, when much of the paper processing/data entry that they have been doing is replaced by direct online processing of electronic bills, budgets, status updates, documents, etc. What we have seen in many of the law departments who adopt Serengeti is that the administrative staff often take on higher level work, doing much of the first-level bill, budget, and status review that attorneys had been doing, and performing triage so that the attorneys can spend their time where it will have the most impact.

    Even more encouraging is that a whole new role is often created around the reporting that becomes possible with all of the new data that is available online for the first time from bills, budgets, exposure estimates, and status updates flowing through the system. Often it is the administrators who were in charge of processing paper who take on this new role. They become key to law department operations as they produce the reports that identify areas that need attention, assess developing trends in spending and exposure, and quantify the value that the law department is providing to the company in regular reports to the GC, company management and the Board.

    We see these individuals at our user conferences, beaming with pride at how learning to use this technology has not only made their work more interesting, but it has also made them more important to their organizations. Perhaps law firms can learn from what is already happening at their corporate clients. As indicated above, although many secretaries (like many lawyers) may not be ready to change what they do, many others may be eager to upgrade their skills for a better future (particularly given the alternatives described above).

  9. The Last Honest Lawyer

    Jordan, I think you are missing the key factor in the disappearance of legal secretaries – they’re very valuable work is not billed to the client. A good legal secretary is invaluable to a lawyer, but not so valuable to a BigLaw firm that is feeling the pinch. Instead they cost money – good ones at big firms can make more than associates at smaller firms – but don’t add billable revenue. Thus, they are fired and their work is then passed through to other billable timekeepers, whether it be paralegals, associates or partners single-finger-pecking their keyboards at $1,000 an hour. Shameful, but the new reality, as BigLaw continues to mismanage the massive sea change the legal industry is experiencing.

  10. Jordan Rockowitz

    Great article, Jordan. I echo everyone else’s sentiments. Re: LHL comment: Your assessment is true, and thus, again, brings myopia to a new level. Doesn’t someone know how to run a business in BigLaw?!

  11. The Last Honest Lawyer

    Obviously, a good legal secretary would have edited my incorrect “they’re” to “their,” thereby saving me from looking illiterate – a job countless legal secretaries have done for their attorney’s throughout history.

  12. A lawyer

    To The Last Honest Lawyer:
    They would also have corrected “attorney’s” and replaced it with attorneys!

  13. Patricia E. Infanti, PP, PLS

    Jordan, thank you so much for your thought-provoking article. I appreciate the fact that you feel investment in valuable legal secretaries would better serve a law firm’s strategic plan for the future.
    Fay and Monica, I am sorry that your past experiences with legal secretaries gave you the impression that none have a desire to branch out and learn new things. I can only say that you have rarely or perhaps never worked with a legal secretary who views her role in the legal industry as a professional career. What a shame that you haven’t had the opportunity to work side by side with one of these consummate professionals, for they are interested in learning and willing and eager to take on new tasks and responsibilities.
    Honest Lawyer – we are very aware of the fact that the important work of legal secretaries is not billable. However, our work does directly contribute to happy and satisfied clients. Further, for those clients who prefer alternate billing arrangements, a knowledgeable and experienced legal secretary saves the firm money by handling many, many tasks of partners, associates, and paralegals for which the firm will not realize a profit under a flat or negotiate fee arrangement. By properly training and using these long-term, knowledgeable legal secretaries, fee earners are then free to concentrate on those matters that are billed hourly. In short, we free up attorneys to do what they really need to do — practice law and cultivate business — leaving the details of running an efficient and effective law practice to the experienced, professional legal secretary. If the almighty billable hour is so important, than invest in education of interested legal secretaries to earn their paralegal certificates.
    Those truly invested, loyal, knowledgeable, experienced, and valuable legal secretaries are out there. They have been in the law firms all along. Take a good long look before the next slashing of staff numbers without thought for th.e future.
    Thanks again, Jordan, for saying what needed to be said.

  14. Camella Hayes, Legal Assistant, B.S. Business Management

    Excellent and thoughtful article. I have been a legal secretary/legal assistant/paralegal for over 22 years, along with college degree in Business Management, and an two year degree in Legal Secretary/Paralegal studies. I have always viewed my role as being a “manager.” I have managed attorney offices in California and elsewhere. I do believe that the major culprit has to be the corporate culture of whatever firm a legal secretary is working in and that mindset plays into how staff will be viewed. For the last seven years I have been working at one firm that does value staff. I have been allowed to assist attorneys by working on pro bono cases, organize and run career fairs for underprivileged students to educate them on opportunities in the legal field, run hospitality suites, and take on many other tasks besides general day-to-day legal work.

    My personal take is that a really good legal secretary/assistant is part mom, part psychologist, detail-oriented multi-tasker and understands people. I have run into my share of legal secretaries who will not embrace change, but not many. In the end however, the bottom line continues to drive law firms as insurance companies and other clients set limits on what will be paid for and what will be written off, and until loyalty and a commitment to producing excellent work and service to both clients inside and outside of the firm, cutbacks will continue to take place. I try to serve my attorneys like I would serve a “client,” I try to respond to their requests quickly and effectively, and provide them with updates and follow-up. Just my personal opinion, but f excellent work product and service is a primary goal, then a legal secretary/assistant can reinvent themselves and find work in any market.

  15. Reba Peden

    Jordan,

    Excellent article. I agree totally with Patti Infanti that the worth of the legal secretary is so much more than we are sometimes given credit for. As a legal staff member (legal secretary, paralegal, and office manager) for over 27 years, I know that my commitment to my profession has included many years of learning new ways to assist my attorneys. Continuing education for legal staff never seemed to be of much importance to the law firms I have worked with, so I took it upon myself to join NALS…the association for legal professionals to obtain continuing education to be the most I could be for my firms and the attorneys I worked for.

    I don’t believe for a minute that I am alone in my desire to be the best asset a law firm has. I know too many others who work just as hard to stay up with current laws, practices and procedures to “make their law firm/attorneys look good.” We are a proud segment of the legal field and we are committed to doing the best job for our firms. However, we are still the first to be let go when profitability is in question.

    Lawyers, take a look, a good hard look, at what your seasoned legal secretaries are willing to do for your firm. Granted, some staff members are only there for a paycheck, but not all. To many of us, we have given a large part of our lives over to the legal profession because to us, it is not just a job or just a paycheck, it is our career and we are proud to be in this profession.

  16. Kelly Hess

    I’m a legal secretary who spent 8 years in biglaw and got out mainly because of the changes they were making to the secretaries’ jobs. I’m lucky to have found a great spot in a litigation boutique where my skills are both stretched and appreciated. Small firms are, in my view, the last refuge for the best legal secretaries, because they rely on secretaries more than big firms do, and they simply can’t afford to make the drastic changes that big firms are making.

    I’ll second both Fay S.’s and Patricia Infanti’s comments. A great many of us are consummate professionals whom a busy lawyer would be hard-pressed to do without. I’m fortunate to be among a select group of such secretaries in my current job. But in big firms, reality all too often matches Fay S.’s experience.

    I think the latter is somewhat the result of the way big firms do business. Many of the legal secretary’s traditional functions have been taken away and parceled out to various administrative departments, as well as to that endless stream of first-year associates. Biglaw secretaries get used to repeating the same dull, narrowly-defined functions every day. Those who stay in the same positions long-term (i.e., those who dislike challenges and find comfort in repetition) slide into a calcified mindset that causes them to see learning anything new as an unfair hardship. They also tend to become complacent, which leads to sloppy work. This sloppiness and resistance to change, in turn, feed the notion among biglaw partners and HR managers that secretaries don’t contribute much and can be eliminated without consequence. You might say that, where secretaries are concerned, big law firms set up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  17. Linda Dette

    Jordan, first of all thank you for writing your article. This has started a much needed dialogue between the attorneys and legal staff.

    I am in agreement with Kelly. I, too, used to work at a Big law firm, then went to medium sized firms and am now at a small firm and am happily tasked with so many new and interesting challenges on a daily basis. Yes, I have some mundane administrative functions as well, but I opted for the changes that a small firm offers. This firm has stretched my knowledge in so many ways and they appreciate my willingness to take on new projects and learn new things. As a result I am earning regular bonuses for my contributions, and that is a true incentive. I am no spring chicken and could retire in 3 years or so, but I have no desire to do so because I have been embraced as a viable and important TEAM member. Not just a secretary, legal assistant or paralegal, an important asset to the attorneys, the firm, clients and co-counsel. I know my cases and others depend on my to be able to advise them where we stand on discovery, motions, etc. on very complex business litigation cases that often require overlapping work product.

    I was originally hired as a secretary and covering six attorneys, that in and of itself was a major feat. However, given the chance and encouraged to grow, I am doing more and more billable paralegal work and pay for myself in that way alone. I am not saying it is easy, and sometimes you can stumble (or maybe even get in a little trouble — but you are still learning), but my mind is growing younger and fuller by the day. I am not stuck in any routine rut, everyday is different whether it is frustrating or frantic, it is always, always fascinating.

    Do not think that small firms may not make as many changes as larger firms, they do but in a different manner. Instead of knowing six months in advance that we are changing from Word 3 to Word 10 and they will “roll out” the new program as soon as the new macro program is ready, everyone will be trained including the attorneys (run the laugh track now), and being told there is no need to worry in interim 6, usually 10 months, a small firm just makes the change, you walk in one day and find that everyone has a new program on their computer….no fancy roll out, simply you start working and don’t have time to think about it. No preconceived notions about the new program and how you are going to like or hate it, you just start working with it. Sure, there is a learning curve, but when you have to get your work done, you utilize your time as efficiently as possible, learn and share what you know. In small firms you don’t have time to run to HR personnel, who really has no say beyond what the partners want, you find your way to solve the problem.

    I would only hope that some of those partners, associates, and HR managers out there would at least offer their secretaries, legal assistants or whatever title they have, an opportunity to grow. Talk to them, find out which employees would love the change and give the training and opportunity to truly be part of team, support. Everyone wins. If someone doesn’t want to change, then pair them up with like-minded attorneys. Everyone has their value, and if not, then weed them out. As my boss likes to say “You don’t know what you don’t know”. So go find out. You never know, you might find a couple of shining stars!

  18. Craig Blumhagen

    In light of decreased need for traditional legal secretary skills (whether the decreased need is real or manufactured by a firm), I would think it would be in the interest of all Paralegals/Legal Secretaries to do some investigation of their own to determine (1) what tasks are being outsourced; and (2) what new skills could be learned to make yourself more useful to the firm, and look at it as an investment in your future to go out and learn whatever skill, software, program, etc. would make you more indispensable.

  19. Lowry Lloyd

    I agree with Kelly Hess’s comments. If a legal secretary role is one involving merely repetitive routine tasks which are highly prescribed, then the individuals who will be most comfortable doing such work long term will naturally be less interested and less open to challenge and growth.

    The cosy ’1950s office wife’ model which has been doggedly preserved beyond its usefulness in lawyers’ offices has shown a state of denial about how the legal profession is developing and has inefficiently determined roles in legal offices for far too long. Technology is seen as a gimmick and secretaries (‘the girls’!) are seen as merely little helpers with no legal training or business sense and therefore of little value.

    However, a relevant factor in this debate is the current average age of legal secretaries. In the UK in my experience this seems to be a profession which fewer women wish to enter possibly due to the nature of its role and its old-fashioned image. Therefore though the lack of new blood will retain the status quo for now in a lot of places, in the long term demographics might eventually force the hand of those who run legal firms to adapt to a modern era and the inevitable change of culture.

  20. EA

    Great post. I think the fundamental problem is the way that law offices are strictly “them” and “us”. Most lawyers view secretaries as disposable. My boss only realises the vast amount I do in a day after I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks and she can get no-one else to do her work because of her attitude towards secretaries. Expecting her to do things herself is impossible – she cannot even use a fax machine. Not because she physically can’t, but because she thinks its beneath her. She asks me to pull files that are in her office – an arm’s length away. I am always looking to learn new skills, yet she has actively blocked me from doing this and has even asked other lawyers not to give me work to do because I am “too busy” with her work. I’m useful where I am so moving upwards is impossible. The culling of so many secretaries during the economic crisis is just a symptom of the general snobbery that exists in law firms. Until lawyers realise the value of a good secretary and acknowledge the work they do, nothing will change.

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