Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England.
I mentioned, a while ago, that I would write an article about secretaries. I have been nervous ever since.
Nervous of the secretaries-turned-solicitors, solicitors-married-to-their-secretaries and solicitors who might just accidentally leave their screens on this page when they walk away from their desk. I guess that is less likely to be an issue at the moment though, and this morning I realised this column is anonymous so, going against everything I believe in terms of anonymous online vitriol, here’s a small amount of what I have to say about secretaries and the unusual two-tier, gender-imbalanced industry in which we work.
As a trainee I was bright, enthusiastic and ready to learn. I don’t think I was annoying (honestly), or arrogant, or anything that a secretary wouldn’t like. But still they didn’t like me. One almost bullied me, except I didn’t care so I think that means she didn’t succeed. I remember once she was copying a bundle and I wanted to interrupt to copy my clients’ ID and she wouldn’t let me. That sort of thing, every day. My mum would be livid every evening when I told her what had gone on, but I was fairly sure I wasn’t at fault and that- unlike this woman- I had much bigger fish in my life to fry.
Sometimes I would go over it in my mind. Once I had mentioned I didn’t like Next clothes. I was 22 and Next was just a bit middle-of-the-road for me then. Had she thought that I thought I was better than Next? Was that why she didn’t like me? It was the best I could come up with. It was a waste of energy to even think about it. These women- for there was more than one of them- were simply very easily threatened by other women. Particularly young, bright, ambitious ones. And it was a reflection on them, not me.
These types of secretary could be ferocious, and I have known senior solicitors doing their own admin because they are scared to ask their secretary to do it. Nobody wins, long term, in that situation. I do understand that a secretary will often feel, quite rightly, that they know more about the job than a new fee earner, and that this must be frustrating, especially if the fee earner is a lot younger than them.
Being a legal secretary was, or is, considered a decent job. However, I have been told at least twice by secretaries that they are "not paid to think". For the record, my dog is not paid to think. Everyone else is, absolutely, paid to think. I recently had a secretary for two years to whom work seemed to be an inconvenience and a distraction from life admin. This meant that her work was so rushed it was almost all wrong. Before her three month probation review my boss told me that we have to be quite hard if we are not happy with performance, which I get, but I was convinced every time she made a mistake she would learn from it and eventually we would iron out all the mistakes. But because she didn’t care, she didn’t learn, and I had to check everything meticulously every day.
I have always accepted that the buck stops with me- if a document contains mistakes, it is my fault for not checking it carefully enough. But a secretary and a fee earner are a team, and working well together should lead to rewards for both of you- pride in your work being one. If I can rely, to an extent, on my secretary doing her job carefully I can concentrate on chargeable work.
Some say secretaries are a dying breed. I referred to rewards above, and of course the reward that matters the most usually only comes to a secretary if they become a fee earner. No doubt we have lost a lot of fantastic secretaries that way. Are secretaries still being trained at college? I can only think of one secretary at work who is under 45, and she is studying to be a legal executive.
My previous firm certainly thought that secretaries were a dying breed. It was in with the paralegals and out with the secretaries. I worked in the next room from a guy in his 50s who billed a good £250,000 a year (FYI- in a high street firm in the sticks this was very good) and they were trying to get rid of his secretary. Why would you want someone typing and photocopying when they could be in court, seeing clients, drafting documents and doing all sorts of chargeable things at a high hourly rate instead? I absolutely believe, unless you have some super IT and case management system I have yet to see, without proper admin support there is a ceiling on the amount of fees you can generate. It is not just typing- and this is what I am struggling with at the moment as many secretaries are working from home- most of their time, the time that is unchargeable when I do it- is spent photocopying, putting enclosures with letters, filing, taking calls, organising diaries and so on.
I’m sure there will be a push, in the post-Coronavirus world, to reduce admin staff. Yes, we can all type but that is not the point. A good secretary is so much more than a typist. I am hopeful that what I experienced as a trainee is going on less, being managed better by HR and with more open minded attitudes to women in the workplace as the years go by, but in order to encourage and keep good secretaries they need to know they can’t be replaced by a computer, that there is career progression available to them, and they need to know by how much their fee earner’s fees increase as a result of having them. Because that is actually how much they are worth.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article