Everyone in the legal profession is confronted with a degree of administration duties. As a legal secretary this is an area you are expected to lead on. You may have years of “admin” experience and already consider yourself an expert, but it can be very beneficial to take an assessment of your current skill level from time to time. You may also just be starting in the legal profession, so we will start with the basics before considering what kinds of advanced skills would help you achieve expert status.
Most legal secretarial roles require you to deal with filing, meeting clients, answering telephone enquiries, inputting data, document production and compiling presentations. With increasing use of new technologies and digitation of paper processes these admin skills have become more involved and more important to master. With any changes to the way work is done, there is opportunity, so for any experts reading ask yourself – am I the “go to” person when there is an admin issue? If so, great, but then ask yourself will I continue to be so if current systems change?
Let’s consider four basic skills you should have, and provide some aspects that you may want or need to develop.
Communication (written & oral)
You should be proficient as you may be responsible for handling telephone calls and emails. Being able to manage correspondence professionally and quickly is vital as clients will expect a firm to respond to enquiries in a timely manner. Clients will also expect to be handled in a polite manner (even when they are not). If you do come across a client who is not particularly cordial it can help to remind yourself that often they are seeking a lawyer’s advice perhaps because of unfortunate circumstances - being sued, recent death, divorce, etc. To quickly assess how effective a communicator you are - ask for feedback. Whether you are receiving this as formal feedback at an appraisal or informally asking someone for their assessment, you can learn a lot from the answer you are given.
Discretion and confidentiality
In any role you are expected to maintain confidentiality, but as a legal secretary this duty is paramount as you will be privy to highly sensitive and confidential information. Clients naturally expect you to keep their secrets safe. They also want to deal with people who come across as discreet. By nurturing this persona, it will help you develop trust with both client’s and colleagues. Some practices may want you to sign a confidentiality agreement or may only let you have access to some parts of their case management systems. As well as restricting access, you will come across basic physical systems such as shredding documents and using confidential waste disposal. There are also technology systems like password protection and encryption of documents. The key is to be aware of the systems your firm is using and, as a starting point, read any policies your firm has. Once you know what you are meant to be doing, then build up how efficient and effective you can be at implementing your firms security protocols. Finally, as you gain more experience you may find better systems and methods to use. As a master administrator you should flag potential improvements as it will not only help the firm, but will do wonders to enhancing your personal reputation.
High standards of computer literacy are a given but what does this mean? If you can create spreadsheets, type e-mails and prepare documentation you are probably at a good standard. To move beyond just being proficient consider:
- Becoming a specialist on your firm’s case management systems.
- Making better use of the ever-expanding use of online portals. These portals are common in both contentious and non-contentious work and include those on the Court Service website, Land Registry and Companies House.
- Developing your social media management skills. Some firms have a DIY approach to online media content and marketing so you could become their expert.
There is often a balancing act that you must perform – dealing with many tasks in a tight deadline while keeping everything 100% accurate. Being willing to multitask is important, as is having good time management and organisational skills. With time management, not only should you plan out your daily and weekly schedule, but you should also be prepared to re-prioritise effectively. It may not be enough to simply leave the least important stuff to the end. Be able to communicate with a colleague as you may need to delegate tasks. You may also need to communicate an unwelcome decision – saying “no” to a job. Giving a senior colleague a “no” can be difficult but, as you develop your organisational skills, you will recognise that often you can analyse the situation better than those who are passing work to you. Even if a colleague is initially unhappy, if you are making the strategically sound decision, they should thank you in the end.
You may have finished this article and be able confirm to yourself that your admin skills are excellent. If so, congratulations, but do be prepared to continue reflecting on areas of improvement. If you have identified some aspects that you could develop, note them down as a first step to creating a development plan.
In future articles we will consider how to create a formal development plan and highlight other skills and behaviours such as document management, research, self-motivation and concentration that can be useful areas to focus on.
Article written by Seamus Ryan