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Legal Secretary – The right hand of a Lawyer.

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Are you an L.A. Law fan? If you are fascinated by the law, you might want to consider becoming a legal secretary. You'll be asked to compile legal documents, organize case files and perhaps even deliver papers to the courthouse. You can be the right hand of a lawyer or judge who handles or hears cases that may involve criminal conduct or any number of other interesting legal issues.

The legal system could not function properly without skilled, competent legal secretaries who transcribe and type legal briefs (memorandums of points of fact or law having to do with a specific case), interrogatories (formal questions asked in writing) and other documents. Some also do legal research, observe and take notes during legal proceedings, file court documents and prepare papers such as deeds (a proof of ownership), affidavits (sworn testimony) and motions (an application made to the court for a ruling from a judge).

Opportunities for legal secretaries exist in many types of offices. Large firms and corporate legal departments are the most formal and most demanding of law offices; they also usually offer the highest salaries. You may start off as a junior legal secretary who is trained to follow in-house procedures and work as a floater secretary to cover when a regular secretary is absent. Government offices (local, state and federal court systems and agencies) usually pay lower hourly wages but offer more job stability and retirement plans. Small and medium-size firms are more informal and often offer flexible work arrangements.



There are also many types of law practices-corporate, litigation, real estate, wills and probate, criminal, patents, bankruptcy, family, personal injury, negligence and malpractice, public interest and environmental. Your own specialty as a legal secretary will mirror those of the lawyers you work for.

Although law offices vary in size and kind, they are serious and usually busy places to work. To be comfortable working in these environments, you should have a business like attitude, be willing to work hard and have the ability to remain calm under intense deadline and people pres-sure. It's essential to keep details of cases you work on confidential.

The volume of paperwork in the legal profession is very high, and much of your time will be spent doing word processing at the computer. Knowing how to transcribe from a Dictaphone or stenotype machine is very useful. Instead of dictating correspondence or reports, some lawyers use their own desktop computers to create drafts; secretaries must correct misspellings, punctuation errors and other mistakes.

Legal secretaries can move up to higher-level administrative duties, supervise other secretaries, become office managers or work for a senior partner or important judge. The potential for advancement is excellent, and good legal secretaries are in demand.

What You Need to Know

  • " Commonly used legal terms
  • " Basic legal procedures
  • " Ability to use one or more word processing programs
  • " Strong keyboarding and typing ability
  • " Ability to transcribe from dictation equipment
  • " Shorthand or fast longhand a plus (to take dictation)
  • " Knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation
  • " Office machine know-how
  • " Ability to use on-line legal or library references a plus

Do You Have What It Takes?

  • " Detail-oriented personality
  • " Stronger than average organizational skills
  • " Ability to keep information confidential
  • " Ability to project confidence and authority to clients
  • " Ability to be productive and calm under pressure
  • " Diplomacy in working with all types of people
  • " Ability to project a businesslike image

A high school diploma is required. Graduates of legal secretarial training courses can often find their first jobs more easily than can those without experience or additional coursework.

Licenses Required
  • " None.
A legal secretary may take a test to become a CLS (certified legal secretary) or PLS (professional legal secretary) through the National Association of Legal Secretaries (International), which can help in professional advancement.

Job openings will grow: faster than average

The demand for legal services is projected to remain high; so will the need for qualified legal secretaries. Part-time and temporary opportunities are expected to increase.

Entry-level jobs: junior legal secretary (at large firms).

Legal secretary, legal administrative assistant

Beginners

  • " Answer phones, direct calls, give information
  • " Transcribe and type correspondence, memos, legal documents
  • " Sort and file papers, correspondence and documents
  • " Proofread and fact check
  • " Locate research materials in law library
  • " Schedule appointments
  • " Witness signatures on legal documents
  • " Fax and telecommunicate documents, make copies
  • " Prepare time sheets

Experienced Legal Secretaries

All of the above, plus:

  • " Do calendaring and docket management (keep track court appearance dates and document deadlines)
  • " Proofread time sheets
  • " Work for a more senior-level attorney
  • " Manage the work flow of word processing staff
  • " Organize exhibits and documents during court proceedings
  • " Delegate work to other staff members or to outside services

When you'll Work

A 35 or 40 hour week is typical in the legal departments of many companies and in most court jobs. But expect longer hours (and overtime pay) when a legal deadline has to be met.

A Tier a year regular employment, you can expect a week or two of vacation time. But if you work a lot of overtime, you may receive days off for "comp" time. Most law offices provide paid sick and personal days, but if you are one of only a few legal secretaries (or the only one) in a firm, you may be asked to come in on holidays if deadlines need to be met.

  • " Health insurance (most firms)
  • " Law firms large and small
  • " Legal departments of large businesses
  • " Municipal, state and federal court systems
  • " Local, state and federal government
  • " Back and shoulder strain (if your chair, desk height and monitor position are not adjusted properly)
  • " Stress-related symptoms (especially headaches)
  • " Carpal tunnel syndrome (a wrist fatigue injury caused by repetitive keyboard motions)
  • " Eyestrain and headaches from staring at a computer screen

Beginners and experienced legal secretaries: little potential for travel

Experienced legal secretaries are sometimes asked to accompany their boss to court, which may involve travel to another U.S. city.

The offices of large law firms and corporations are usually tastefully decorated and equipped with state-of-the-art computers and office equipment. The decor and pleasantness of offices of small firms and solo practitioners depends on the financial success of the firm's partners and their interest in bankrolling attractive surroundings. The least attractive legal offices are those of the court system, government and nonprofit legal defense lawyers whose budgets are publicly controlled or whose mission is not to profit but to provide service.

Dollars and Cents

Starting salary: $20,000 to $27,000 More experienced: $30,000 to $50,000+ Part-time legal secretaries can expect to earn from $10 to $12 per hour, depending on experience, location (urban pay scales tend to be higher, with the highest in the Northeast and California) and type of law office (corporate and large law firms tend to pay best).

Moving Up

If you do a great job, you can expect to be rewarded with raises. If you work in a large law office environment, you may be able to work your way up to becoming a legal secretary for a partner or acquire office management skills. Or you may be promoted to manage the work flow of a particular practice group within a large law firm. Large law firms also offer you the possibility of lateral moves so that you can experience working in different areas of the law. The more you know about a type of law or office administration, the more indispensable you can make yourself, whether you work for a big or small firm. In addition to better pay, you may be able to take on lower-level tasks that junior associates or solo practitioners would do.

Where the Jobs Are

Here are jobs wherever lawyers and court systems arc found. The largest concentrations of lawyers are in New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston.

Training

You can start by taking secretarial and business practices courses in high school. Most legal secretarial pro-grams are offered by postsecondary business schools and community colleges. The National Association of Legal Secretaries (International) also offers correspondence courses and training courses through its local chapters.

Legal secretaries are predominantly female.

The Bad News
  • " Overtime often required
  • " Work pace and environment can be stressful
  • " Pressure to be fast and accurate
The Good News
  • " Strong demand for competent legal secretaries
  • " Higher salaries than non-specialized secretaries
  • " Part-time and temporary jobs available
Timika Seligman, 23, legal secretary, Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Years in the field: three

How did you break into the field?

After graduating from high school, I took an eight-and-a-half-month secretarial/information processing program at Katharine Gibbs secretarial school. When I finished, I was proficient in typing, speed writing and business English and also in how to dress and speak for a good secretarial position.

My first job was as a "temp-to-perm" for a plant manager. After the plant closed, I learned of an opportunity to work for two attorneys. I talked them into hiring me based on my strong secretarial skills. I did all the general secretarial work and learned legal language and processes by working for them for a year. In that job I typed legal documents, did research, learned how to set up interrogatories and fielded questions.

Where did you go from there?

When the two attorneys split up, I landed a job in the legal department of United Way. Besides doing legal work, I also did charts and graphs and set up meetings and luncheons for a supervisor.

What do you do in your current job?

I process letters and complaints, do memos for lawyers and judges and do case management. After a case is documented and filed, I update the information when necessary and type the reports and whatever correspondence has to accompany them after investigators have done the legwork on a case.

What skills do you find most essential?

You have to be able to type or keyboard on the computer and transcribe from a Dictaphone. The lawyers are on the go so much that everything is on tape because they can't stop to write or even to sit down at their computers. You don't have to have formal Dictaphone training-you can teach yourself at home.

The material you deal with is also highly technical and requires that you be organized and detail-oriented. It's your responsibility to catch not just grammar and spelling errors but the content that might not be just right.

What was the hardest aspect of working in this field during your first few years in it?

All attorneys are not the same when it comes to deadlines. In my first job, I discovered that one of the lawyers allowed extra time; the other one didn't and was very difficult to deal with when he was under pressure. What I learned was that you can't take people's behavior under stress too personally.

What do you like most about your work?

Learning how the law works; hearing about cases, especially the human side of them. There's a lot of variety in my work; it's never monotonous to me.

What do you like least about your work?

I can have a really bad day if the pressure mounts and people are breathing down my neck. But you can't be a person who takes it home with you or you'll go nuts.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about going into the field?

Don't let anyone discourage you. My parents wanted me to go to college, but I think I have done better by getting training and working my way up in the profession. In the legal field, you have to be sharp and have a mind for it. Since elementary school I have read newspapers and kept abreast of what's going on in the world. That's very important. It makes you more well-rounded and attractive to an employer.

Terry Stammel, 25, legal secretary/office manager, Stamell, Tabacco & Schager, New York,

Years in the field: seven

How did you break into the field?

When I was a senior in high school, I began working after school at the printing company where my sister was the office manager. The firm printed briefs for lawyers, and we also typed them if needed. I liked it, and after high school I got a job at a law firm with criminal, matrimonial and real estate attorneys. There, I worked for three attorneys and one paralegal.

Was it a "usual" first job?

It was fairly typical. I learned how a law office operates and what goes into preparing legal documents-there's research and legwork as well as drafting and formal typing, checking, proofreading and copying. I took materials to court and worked on legal papers like summonses, motions and interrogatories. I was there for two years before coming to the law firm where I am now.

What kind of preparation did you have?

The on-the-job training at my sister's office in high school was invaluable. I also took typing all four years of high school, majored in business and took courses in word processing and steno.

When I began at the firm where I am now, I worked for one partner and got on-the-job training that was terrific. He did a lot of drafting on his computer, and then he would help me finalize it. My predecessor taught me the basics of WordPerfect before she left, and I taught myself the rest. My boss taught me how to do research and make documents that were prepared for the court look right.

What do you currently do?

I work for a firm with three partners, three associates (all lawyers), one law clerk, two secretaries and a receptionist. The firm specializes in securities and antitrust law. I've been here five years and was recently made office manager. I supervise the receptionist and the law clerk. In this capacity, I have administrative responsibilities-billing (for which I learned a spreadsheet program on the computer), conferring with the accountant once a week, ordering supplies, managing the subtenants in our office suite and handling maintenance and personnel issues.

I work for a different partner now, and I am learning a lot about the insurance area, which is his specialty. He has recently become a litigator (a lawyer who goes to court) and is appreciative of my knowledge in that area.

What do you like most about your work?

I like fast-paced environments. There are things for me to do every minute of the day, so I don't get bored.

How long did it take you to get established?

It's been seven years since my first job, and I feel that I have moved up very well. I started here five years ago at $21,000, and since my promotion to office manager, which was the biggest salary leap I've had, my salary is $40,000. That, for my field and the limited experience I had when I was hired, is something I feel very good about. I feel that I demonstrated my competence and motivation and it paid off.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of going into this field?

You must have good secretarial skills and know legal terminology, which you can learn on-the-job. I have gone to one seminar on management techniques for my new position, but you learn more by doing the job.

Winston Hacock, 38, legal assistant, Lane Parker, Esq., San Francisco, California

Years in the field: nine

How did you break into the field?

After high school I worked for the phone company. When I decided to leave that job after six years, I took a job as a receptionist at a computer company because I was good on the phone. There was a computer terminal at my workstation, and I was encouraged to use the manuals and teach myself how to use it, which I did.

I wanted to advance, but there was no job for me there, so I left and worked as a temp. I was sent to a law firm, the third largest in the city, where I was eventually hired full time. I was already proficient on the computer, but they took the time to teach me legal terminology and procedures.

Describe your first job.

I prepared documents and proofread and managed them. I was responsible for all case-related documents and computer files and for knowing where each was located. These lawyers were working on multi million dollar projects in the corporate real estate division. Real estate deadlines can be killers; often I worked around 70 hours a week, some-times seven days in a row. There was a lot of pressure.

Was it a "usual" first job?

For a large, prestigious corporate law firm, probably. Some jobs I've had since, particularly for private practitioners, can be more "nine to five" and less deadline-crisis oriented, but with many of the same kinds of tasks to perform.

What kind of preparation did you have?

I took typing classes in high school. There were very few males in the class. It is one of the most valuable skills I possess, and it enabled me to pick up keyboarding very quickly.

What was the hardest aspect of working in this field at first?

Learning the legalese; I didn't know what the lawyers were talking about at first. With on-the-job training, I mastered it. After that the biggest challenge was putting together the forms and documents that had to be processed.

How long did it take you to get established?

It took three to four years to feel that I had the skills to get the salary I wanted. I have worked in a number of jobs, and that has made me more diversified. You can earn more by moving around and not getting locked into a firm's salary scale.

What do you currently do?

I work in a two-person office now. I do everything that the attorney I work for doesn't have time to do. He is out of the office 30 to 40 percent of the time, and I am left on my own. I have great flexibility. My boss sets the priorities, but I have the responsibility of planning how they will be accomplished.

From 50 to 70 percent of my time is spent in word processing or other computer-related tasks: document preparation-drafting pleading papers for litigation-filling out form documents preapproved by the court, composing letters and getting them out. I spend one to two hours a day maintaining client files and making phone calls to the court and clients.

What do you like most about your work?

I like the responsibility of being in control of the office and having some say in how things are done. I no longer feel like just an employee. My contribution is important, and my boss acknowledges that.

I have to organize projects using my skills and creativity. In addition, I know that if I don't like where I am, I don't have to stay. I have found that legal secretaries can go anywhere in the country and get a job if their skills are good. And the pay is usually excellent.

What do you like least about your work?

There are some attorneys who can be very difficult to work for, and I have had to deal with stressful situations.

What achievement are you proudest of?

When I returned to San Francisco after working in New York for a year, I began working for a high-powered law firm, where I was part of a team that handled class-action suits against major corporations. It was a massive under-taking to organize, collate and put together 300 exhibits and boxes of documents. For several months I practically lived at the office, but when it was all over, I took my first trip to Europe on the overtime I earned.

What advice would you give someone thinking of going into this field?

Take advantage of opportunities. If employers are willing to train you, do it. You have to be willing to learn, work hard and know almost as much as the attorney knows, and in some areas-the format of documents, deadlines, filing procedures, and court guidelines-you may know more.
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