It has been reported that many larger law firms are firing considerable numbers of staff members, supposedly, for financial reasons. Whether this is to increase profits or avoid the fate of the Dewey firm is not clear. For the purposes of these remarks, it does not matter. (I shall refer to legal secretaries in the feminine. That is unfair, of course, since there are male legal secretaries, but they are a minority, so gender will be ignored.)
Why are they in particular being let go? Here are the alternative mentioned: (1) not enough to do; (2) lawyers don’t need them anymore, since dictation is no longer used much, except for geezer lawyers; (3) they are the workers of yesteryear and the world has changed, so they are really not useful; (4) paralegals can do things legal secretaries cannot; (5) legal secretaries do not know about electronic cyber stuff, and they can’t or won’t learn, besides teaching this sort of thing is expensive.
This action is ill-advised. Legal secretaries know more than most others in the firm as to how it works, who is who, what is what, who has “connections” with whom, and so forth. To a considerable extent, they are the glue of the firm. In addition, secretaries for lawyers who manage firms help them with the kind of knowledge, which can be described as significant “revealing gossip.” Capable firms and business managers all say that having this sort of information is a boon. (Of course, the hearer must actually, appreciate what is being said.)
There is little that an experienced legal secretary cannot be taught. (The word “trained” carries the wrong connotation.) If one cannot be educated, is unwilling to learn, or is unwilling to try to do new stuff, and if there are really no “leftovers” then she has to go. Indeed, if there is a target for who to let go first, it would be one of these persons arranged from worse to best, with the former going before the latter. In case of a tie, keep the one that has been at the firm the longer, so long as that person so long as there is retrainability. (For a somewhat analogous situation, see Kim Farmer “When Your Office Is Someone Else’s Home,” Jobs Section, Sunday NYT 8 (June 23, 2013)
(An interesting problem is how to handle the secretary who has been at the firm for 10 years, but at a similar for the 10 previous years. How do you count the previous 10 years?
I conjecture, on the basis of my experience, that secretaries can do all sorts of things. For example, if there is a document search going on, secretaries can do all the work, even if Big Data problems are involved.
Today’s paralegals will still have lots and lots still to do. For example, they can do what some of the inexperienced young lawyers do and hate doing. Junior lawyers in large firms are said to find their jobs unpleasant and quit in a relatively short period of time, 3 years or less. It is unlikely that paralegals will act in accordance with the same timetable. The ousting process with paralegals could use the same criteria: the worst go first and the best go last. In case of a tie, keep the one that has been there the longest, assuming that new directions are achievable.
This system is not only sound management, quite potentially profitable, and exemplary loyalty, it is realistically pursuing good public relations. Use the local papers. Use NLJ. Use AmJ. And so forth. “We don’t do it like other ___________ in this profession.” (Of course, it is also a business, but that need not be emphasized.
Of course, do this again with the youngest of the lawyers. In addition, at least some observers now claim that many–even most–young lawyers in large firms are unhappy, clear out within the first few years and that it would be good for them (and for the firm) to go earlier and find something they really want to do. Is the same true of the secretary who has been in place for years, has lots of friends know some of the lawyers–and sometimes their families–well? I hypothesize that the reader already knows the answer.
Originally posted on 07/08/2013 @ 9:08 pm