This may not be a long post, but it’s one I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. The current summer lull in news and cases presents the perfect opportunity to say a few words in praise of a vital but often under-appreciated cog in the machine of the law firm. I am referring to the legal secretary.
I practised law as an articled clerk (i.e. a trainee) or a solicitor between 1980 and 2009, with a year off to go to Law College in 1982-83. During that time I almost always had my own secretary, although sometimes shared with others, particularly in the early days. To the best of my memory I had nine or ten secretaries in all. I can say without hesitation that of all the people I met during my career the ones I appreciated most were those secretaries.
The legal secretary can take many forms, ranging from a ‘simple’ typist to someone who is effectively a ‘paralegal’, doing much of the work of a qualified lawyer. I had secretaries at both ends of that scale, but for most of the time their function was primarily a combination of typist, telephonist and diary-keeper.
Why the term ‘legal secretary’, you may ask. Why not just ‘secretary’? Well, what distinguishes the legal secretary is that she or he needs at least a basic knowledge of law and, in particular, legal procedure, to do the job. I remember, in fact, that when I became an articled clerk the first thing my principal did was give me a book entitled ‘The Legal Secretary’s Handbook’, and told me to read it from cover to cover. Initially I was a little put out by this, but I soon discovered that the Handbook was an essential source of basic knowledge, and I referred to it regularly for some time thereafter. I remember, for example, that the Handbook taught me how to set out various legal documents and complete many of the numerous forms required for almost every legal task. It also gave me the vital skill of sewing legal documents together (alas, I don’t think that many, if any, lawyers still sew their documents). [My principal gave me a crucial piece of advice: never ask anyone to do anything you don’t know how to do yourself.]
My secretaries would decipher my dictation (or even worse, my handwriting) and transform it into perfect letters, documents and forms. They would take calls (more of which in a moment), and would ensure appointments never clashed in my diary. And they would do it all with good humour, even when my own humour left something to be desired. In fact, I recall often lightening the burden of what can sometimes be very difficult work by sharing a joke or an amusing anecdote with my secretary.
And there was more. One of the problems with being a practising family lawyer is that you are often not available to see or speak to clients when they call without an appointment – you may be at court, seeing another client, or in some other type of meeting. In such cases your secretary is usually the one who has to deal with the client. They may also have to take other calls, including from unrepresented parties on the other side of your case, some of whom can be somewhat less than polite. The secretary has to deal with all of these things in a calm, professional manner, and mine always did.
And sometimes my secretary would also ease the workload by dealing with some of those mundane legal tasks that can be so time-consuming, freeing my time up so that I could deal with other matters, and making me more productive.
Oh, and there was also the photocopying. How many hours did my secretaries spend overseeing the photocopier, particularly in the days before the machines did the collating for you, and before you could electronically send documents to the copier from your computer?
These were just some of the tasks undertaken by my secretaries – the full list would be too long to mention here.
I doubt that any of my former secretaries will read this post, but if they do, then all I can say is: thank you – you made it so much easier and more enjoyable. In fact, I don’t know how I would have got through it without you.