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Legal secretaries: perception vs. reality

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If you were to ask any of the busy employees of Exclusively Legal, a well-known legal placement service operating in San Diego for the last 20 years, "What is the greatest need in the legal field today?" the unanimous answer would be "legal secretaries." Our most consistent order, even in these uncertain economic times, is for qualified legal secretaries to fill positions that are vital to the function of any law firm or corporate legal department.

Paralegals and attorneys are plentiful in our area, in part because of several degree programs in these specialties, not to mention the number of these professionals who long to call San Diego home. Experienced legal secretaries, however, are few and far between. In large part, this is because the few who express interest in the legal field are not typically encouraged to pursue this career option.

Perhaps it is because the word "secretary" brings to mind an old school vision of sitting behind a desk and answering phones, making appointments, running errands and filing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Increasingly, legal secretaries are challenged to employ their legal knowledge and administrative skills in a highly respected position on the legal team, making an enormous contribution to any firm practice group.

One of my favorite stories of an experienced legal secretary provides interesting perspective on this challenging career. Excerpts from a prior interview follow: Upon completing high school, Lisa went to work for an insurance company for four years and after some time was promoted to a word-processor. Feeling the need for a greater challenge, Lisa was recruited by the help of a friend who was employed as a secretary at a small San Diego law firm, which agreed to hire Lisa although she had no legal experience. With a combination of "smarts and skills," Lisa launched into a career as a legal secretary, where she has been happily employed for almost two decades.

Of course, this did not happen overnight. In the beginning as an employee of a small firm, Lisa did everything from greeting clients to filing documents, allowing her to see what happened to the documents she had worked on. She recalls incidents of standing in the rain trying to get papers filed with the court and now laughingly says, "It was very much a hands-on position and a great deal more fulfilling than my position working in insurance." As her job developed, Lisa decided to take some courses at City College to become more familiar with legal terminology and procedure.

Lisa joined a mid-sized law firm in 1988. Shortly after it merged with a notable large firm later that year, Lisa began working for a young associate, witnessing and participating in the evolution of his career and her's. She was instrumental in contributing to the success of his practice, which concentrated in civil trial litigation with an emphasis in employment law, insurance and construction litigation. The attorney eventually became a partner and Lisa has remained his legal secretary through it all. He often asks his new clients if they have met his legal secretary, Lisa, and then proudly proclaims that she has been with him for more than l6 years.

In addition to her work with this partner, Lisa also assists an associate in the law firm, stating her unique perspective that associates are "future partners or a partner-in-the rough." Her work includes managing the partner and associates on cases and keeping track of who has which case. She interacts with the Records Department and Word Processing Department, a vital part of her job as a litigation legal secretary, which she terms a "high-stress position." She adds that the position requires you "to have the ability to meet deadlines and not allow stress to get to you, but you also have the ability to ask for help because you can't be a superwoman

Following her courses at City College, Lisa went on to prepare for the difficult exam necessary to obtain a California Certified Legal Secretary (CCLS) certificate. The test is a challenging one covering seven areas of the law. Candidates must have at least three years of experience as a legal secretary before taking the CCLS test that is given only twice a year in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Once the certificate is obtained, legal secretaries, like paralegals and attorneys, must complete a specified number of continuing legal education hours to maintain their certificate. Lisa's motivation in obtaining the certificate was to achieve greater personal satisfaction and contribute to her professional career, rather than simply as a way to increase her pay.

Lisa is an active member of the San Diego Legal Secretary Association, which is where I first met her. Lisa believes the association plays an important role in the legal community by providing interesting seminars and further education on the changes and trends in profession. She finds the meetings a great opportunity to talk to others with similar experiences, noting, "When I go home from work and start sharing my day's experience, my husband doesn't understand what a motion for summary judgment is." She encourages other legal secretaries to become a part of the SDLSA as a way to meet other professionals, find out about new employment opportunities and further educate themselves in their field.

I shared with Lisa how difficult it was to source legal secretaries like herself for the many law firms served by Exclusively Legal. Lisa agrees that not enough information is given to high school students about the different opportunities in law offices; rather, the emphasis is placed on becoming an attorney or paralegal. Lisa noted that many successful attorneys have had a formal secretary career, a fact that reveals the wealth of legal experience available to legal secretaries.

Too often the perception is that legal secretaries spend their days getting coffee for clients and attorneys. It is therefore necessary to educate young people on the wide range of responsibilities open to legal secretaries. The problem we face in drawing people to this position is perception vs. reality. The job is whatever you make of it. If you have initiative, you can have a great deal of responsibility.

I used to be an admissions counselor/recruiter for a well-respected paralegal program in San Diego. In my position I saw many students enroll in the paralegal program, graduate and be willing to take any position in a law firm except a legal secretary. In many cases, attorneys can survive without a paralegal, but not without a legal secretary. Legal secretaries are typically involved in the entire process of a case and really serve as the "hub of information," providing knowledge, insight and continuity in the handling of the matter. Paralegals are often involved in project work, making their work more compartmentalized than that of the legal secretary.

In recognition of the growing need for trained legal secretaries, ALA has recently started a Legal Secretary Training Program. The initiation of this program illustrates the need for consistent infusion of new talent in the legal secretarial field, and will focus on a variety of topics, from core subjects in law office procedures to more advanced teachings.

Faced as we are at Exclusively Legal with a shortage of skilled people entering the legal secretarial profession in general, the ALA's program is a welcomed step in the right direction. Such educational ventures, in addition to better informed high school guidance advice, should go a long way to bringing more qualified candidates into this vital career in the legal field in the years ahead.

Parente is a senior recruiter with Exclusively Legal.

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