How Agile Working is Starting to Affect Legal Secretaries

What is ‘agile working’ and how is it likely to affect you? Jocelyn Anderson talked to Virginia Clegg, Senior Partner elect of national firm DAC Beachcroft, to find out.

Agile working is beginning to gather momentum. It’s a concept that has been around for a few years, but it has come into sharp focus recently in the legal market because of its adoption by a number of firms, including Herbert Smith, Wedlake Bell, DAC Beachcroft and, after an announcement in August, Clifford Chance. Indications are that this new idea is likely to be taken up increasingly over the next few years, and that it is going to touch the working lives of many Legal Secretaries quite soon.

Those of us who spend our lunchtimes scanning documents and manning reception while simultaneously paginating a bundle and trying to eat a sandwich may believe we have embraced agile working already. But it’s not about multitasking; it’s about flexibility, as I discovered when I discussed this new way of thinking about work with Virginia Clegg, Senior Partner elect at DAC Beachcroft. Virginia played a vital role in introducing the new agile working framework at DAC Beachcroft’s Leeds office and told me about the major changes that have taken place in the way Beachcroft’s secretarial and PA staff work.

At its most basic, agile working is a work system through which fee earners can choose where, when and how to work on a day-to-day basis – which of the firm’s offices to work in, for example, or whether to work from home. This flexibility seems to incentivise lawyers (and indeed other staff) to work better, and it also increases the opportunities for working outside traditional hours, which in turn increases the opportunities for recruitment diversity, because lawyers can work from home or from an office in another part of the country. But when individuals can work in the wee small hours of the morning if that is what suits them best, it means, among other things, that office space will get smaller and that lawyers will need support not just between the hours of nine and five.

So behind this simple idea lies a revolution in thinking about the way we all work – fee earners and support staff alike. To begin with, an agile working environment does away with the idea of any member of staff having ‘personal territory’. Instead – at Beachcroft, for example – there are single ‘hot desks’ for multiple employees to use at various times, shared spaces called ‘collaboration areas’ for team meetings and breakout spaces for less work-oriented gatherings. Virginia put it succinctly, telling me, “We changed our thinking from “mine” to “ours”, and from “own” to “share”.” Personal belongings are put away in lockers at the end of the day. All of the staff are trained to think about using the office in a completely different way, and changing the way that you use the office also changes the way that you think about and do your work.

Neither lawyers nor legal secretaries have fixed desks at Beachcroft’s Leeds office, though a secretarial/support space anchors the section of the office used by each team, called the ‘home zone’. Most secretaries are assigned either to individual fee earners or to teams, and follow the lawyers from place to place within the office; one day they may be working in the secretarial home zone, and then on the next day in the collaboration area with the lawyers on their team.

This system simply could not operate if there were a large amount of paper filing, and at Beachcroft the amount of paper has been drastically reduced. Virginia explained that the hard-copy filing system had been ‘halved and halved again’ during the move to the agile working system. Instead, lawyers and support staff share digital files which can be accessed by all offices and organised in the same way as the paper system.

Of course, it’s technology which has made this possible. The focus of the secretary’s work in an agile working environment like Beachcroft’s is no longer the desk but the laptop. The laptop now contains everything a secretary needs for the working day. Not only does it give access to most of the office files, but add a headset and it also becomes the secretary’s phone extension. The advances in wireless communications and information technology mean that a secretary no longer needs a fixed desk at all.

Virginia told me that it was this combination – of technological change and the new way of thinking about work – that made it possible, which led to the agile working system. Changing technology is also invading what used to be the traditional roles of Legal Secretaries as audio/copy typists and filing clerks. The time spent on sorting and retrieving files can be drastically cut using digital storage, and Beachcroft is not alone in working on new voice recognition systems which are intended to slice away at the amount of time spent on audio typing.

We’ve heard the claims for technology changes before, but this time there does seem to be more force behind them. In particular, this time these changes are being adopted in bigger numbers. It’s significant that Beachcroft now intends to roll out the agile working system in its other offices nationally, which suggests that from the firm’s point of view it is operating well. This, along with the adoption of the new system among other big firms, means that agile working is a development you need to follow closely.

It’s early days to make an assessment of what the widespread adoption of agile working would mean for the Legal Secretary job market, but it’s clear that some of the traditional skills – high typing speeds and good shorthand, for example – may well become less relevant in a market which is probably going to become even more competitive.

On the other hand, some very traditional skills may be the key to standing out. Virginia Clegg sees the change in working style as freeing up the secretary to spend time on other activities which are of critical importance to any law firm, particularly liaising with clients and between fee earners. In her view, the most important skills that any Legal Secretary should have in the future are “interpersonal skills: the ability to engage with the internal and the external client”. Your people skills may be an important part of your future, and that is something to bear very much in mind.