One of my hobbies is going to folk clubs. I do comic songs, and once I made up some doggerel about things which can go awry in a legal office – for instance, an inexperienced casual receptionist telling a client point-blank that the legal eagle is too busy to talk to him or her, rather than ‘talking round the subject’, explaining the fee-earner is presently occupied and taking a message. I do not want to alarm any budding young Legal Secretaries by mentioning solely things that can go amiss, however.
I became a Legal Secretary in my mid- to late forties and quite by accident. An agency sent me to ‘temp’ in a small firm which at the time did a mixture of various types of law. A few months after my booking finished, the boss of the firm phoned and asked if I would like a permanent job, and thinking of the saying about gift horses and mouths, I accepted. At first I was the overflow Secretary, helping out mainly with conveyancing but also with some family and criminal work. Over a few years the dynamics of the firm changed, and my boss became a sole trader and I was still his Secretary.
When I first tackled conveyancing, I found the work rather like trying to converse with a Martian. A conveyancer asked me to complete an A4 (a now-obsolete Land Registry form). I thought he meant type an A4 envelope! But gradually my competence increased. Looking back, I can see I did the right things but in the wrong order. I studied for my Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs diploma after I had been working as a Legal Secretary for some years. The course material would have been very useful in my early days on the job.
In the 1990s computers had already largely replaced typewriters, so documents and forms could be completed using templates. Secretaries who worked in legal offices in earlier decades had to be very accurate typists, because a mistake could mean a document had to be retyped from scratch. The Internet was not as generally available as it is now, though, so contacts which would probably now be made by email had to be effected via telephone or fax. I well remember typing with an earphone in one ear and a telephone to the other, trying to communicate with a prison to make an appointment for a Solicitor.
In my experience some of the skills and qualities needed these days by a Legal Secretary mirror those of any professional secretary. One should be an adept typist, especially in audio-typing (shorthand tends to be asked for less often); have competent telephone ability; be proficient in software such as Microsoft Office; and be familiar with the Internet. One should be trustworthy, be loyal to one’s firm and maintain confidentiality. In addition, a Legal Secretary needs a working knowledge of the area(s) of law with which she meets, and of course she has to know those confounded forms. The finer requirements of the job vary from firm to firm and from fee-earner to fee-earner. I had one boss who wanted me to be a capable Secretary and stay within my remit; another wanted me to be more like a PA, including showing new members of the firm ‘the ropes’ and doing lengthy interviews with clients. Then, of course, there is always the skill of tea and coffee making. Provided I was not horrendously busy, I usually did not mind ‘doing the honours’; after all, it meant I could have a ‘cuppa’ myself.
I enjoyed a certain variety while working as a Legal Secretary. For much of my career I was working in just two disciplines of law, conveyancing and wills and probate. Wearing my Conveyancing Secretary hat, I spoke to different organisations and persons, for example, estate agents, mortgage companies, banks and clients. Granted, I occasionally had to answer the same question to three parties within five minutes! Sometimes I had to colour in copies of Land Registry plans. This could be relaxing if I had a less hectic day (which is rare in legal work). I also enjoyed the experience of building up professional working relationships with certain other firms over time.
Of course, there is always the sporadic acrimonious telephone caller. The Secretary has to be polite even if the caller is not. But those who say ‘thank you’ will counterbalance the unpleasant ones, and with luck, there will be courteous callers more often than those of the other variety. Secretaries tend to develop a coping strategy. (Potential Secretaries could do worse than look at the relevant guidance notes on the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs website.)
For most of my years as a Legal Secretary, it was a stable job. I was in my first legal job for more than nine years until my boss decided to close the firm. I am retired now, but I intermittently type from home (oh, the wonders of the Internet!) and some of that work is of a legal nature. The country will always need a legal system, and lawyers will always need capable support staff, albeit the tasks such staff undertake may change periodically. There is something to be said for being trained in a career which is likely to remain in demand.
It is also a career which offers scope for continuing professional development. I joined the profession at a mature age, so I never moved beyond being a Legal Secretary, but a younger woman might eventually wish to explore the possibilities of becoming a Paralegal, Legal Executive or Licensed Conveyancer. I know of one lady who started as a Legal Secretary, then became a Legal Executive and is now a full-fledged solicitor.
Like any profession, the law attracts all types – good and bad and mostly somewhere in between. I can honestly say, however, that while I was a Legal Secretary, the pleasant and decent people I met far outnumbered the unpleasant ones.
The legal environment tends to be a pressurised one (especially if a Secretary is working for more than one fee-earner). I would not say the career of Legal Secretary is one for the faint-hearted. Then again, there is a sense of satisfaction to be achieved from a job well done.
I hope my recollections and observations about my days as a Legal Secretary may prove of some interest to today’s and tomorrow’s members of the profession. Well, must press on – even in retirement, I need a ‘cuppa'.
Footnote: I have used the feminine when referring to Secretaries above, but of course no disrespect is intended to any male Legal Secretaries.
Patricia O’Neill, FILS