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    How to Feed a Lawyer (and Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground)

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June 29, 2006

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Dave!

If I were to dictate a brief, I'd dictate it directly to my computer... speech recognition software's gotten quite good. Why bother with the middleman?

Evan

Dave!--A guy I work with works that way. His software doesn't make these distinctions very well though--plaintiff v. plaintiffs v. plaintiff's v. plaintiffs' v. etc. He's very lazy about fixing those errors, which creates quite a mess in the end--but I suppose with search and replace it should be pretty easy to clean up those type of erros.

Mike

At the wife's firm (patent law group of megafirm), the l-to-s ratio was 2:1 to 3:1. Patent law secretaries are actually in very high demand. They can quit work on Friday and find a new job on Monday.

KT

I actually prefer typing things myself to dictating. I type awfully fast and because I have been using a computer to do both work and schoolwork pretty much since the personal home computer became available, I think my thought process actually works better.

A letter that would take me 10 minutes to type, composing it as I type, would take me a good 20 minutes to correctly dictate because my brain has no experience with that mode of working.

That said, I love our secretaries because they do all the small but crucial tasks that I am liable to get wrong, such as filling out attorney service order forms, or putting everything into the format that the court or judge happens to like, or whatever. Or even just getting the letter finalized and ready for mailing.

For example, if I have a letter that has to go out to a client and be cc:d to a certain number of people, then the process of printing it out on letterhead, putting together all the enclosures and putting together the ccs and then putting them all in envelopes and stamping them, etc. adds a certain amount of time to the process, all of which the client will be billed for if I have to do it. So it's much easier and more economical to do a draft letter on plain white indicating the enclosures and ccs and then hand it off to the secretary to finalize and mail.

I would guess secretaries in small firms are more like office managers, while those in large firms are unfortunately probably more like personal assistants, or even paralegals.

mobar

I know lawyers who still dictate briefs. And their writing is not as good as a result - the structure isn't there, they tend to ramble and repeat, etc.

I agree with KT that secretaries are fabulous for processing mail and attending to little details. But I've also noticed a bit of resentment from the legal secretary class in terms of older generation vs. newer generation attorneys. To make gross generalizations, legal secretaries seem to prefer helpless attorneys. The guys who apparently have no clue that all documents generated in the office are on shared files in the computer and request that their secretary get them a copy of something. There is a certain old-fashioned power dynamic, with the secretary quietly providing the assistance without which the attorney can not function.

Although a good secretary is a godsend to any attorney, if all you're asking them to do is the tedium that you are capable of doing but it isn't worth your time (from a business efficiency perspective) to do, well... that doesn't appear to be a very satisfying job description to more experienced legal secretaries.

mythago

I haven't noticed that e-mail eliminates secretaries at all. Do you really want to send a brief out without another pair of eyes as a proofreader? Do you really think you understand court rules and formatting requirements as well as somebody who's been dealing with them as her primary job for ten years? And do you really like making copies?

I dunno, maybe you just have paralegals with less to do than ours.

Zen

Your comments reflect your ignorance. Experienced, competent legal secretaries aren't on the UI line nor are they becoming paralegals. Perhaps you need to venture outside from your apparent bubbled existence at your particular firm? Come to California to see where all the legal secretaries have gone and ask to do a ride-along with any of them so that you can observe first hand exactly what they do. You can do a ride-along with my secretary and she'll be sure to show you precisely what you don't know.

Evan

Zen: Thanks for your comment. If I were to do a ride-along, what would I observe these California legal secretaries doing?

Do you disagree that lawyers in California are heavy email users and that legal secretaries are therefore less likely to be doing routine correspondence? As I'm litigating about 50 cases in California, I know something about what goes on there. What I said in the post holds true for my opposing counsel in California--I exchange email with them. But you might still be right that I have it all wrong.

Though perhaps not well expressed, my point was that as a result of lawyers adopting technology, secretaries are more likely to be doing things that used to be considered more in the realm of paralegals. Not true?

Stan

The defining moment was when legal secretaries became overvalued bitches. You can pay a legal secretary 50k, or a paralegal 50k. One is more productive then the other.

mythago

Stan, "overvalued bitches" are the high-strung young ladies some of the partners at your firm keep on the side. I know you're mad at your secretary for that 'say please' comment, but really.

Evan, we are very fond of our e-mail in California, but written correspondence is hardly dead. My own experience is that we use e-mail for anything we could do with a phone call--that is, informal matters, very short matters, or things we don't expect are going to have to get attached to a motion. If I'm dealing with a defense firm I know is professional, I can send an e-mail saying "Have you guys sent responses yet, because I haven't received them" or "Let's get together next Tuesday to meet and confer." If I'm warning some gratuitously-hostile bozo that I'm about to whap them upside the head with an OSC, that gets a letter. And of course if they send a letter, I send a letter back.

Crabbygal

Well, speaking as a legal secretary. I can tell you who does dictation even in this day and age -- my boss. I am guaranteed a minimum of three full tapes every Monday morning, with additions all day every day during the week. Then there are the rushes that crop up and push everything back. After that are even more important rushes that push everything back still further. Add to the mix all of the telephone calls and scheduling that needs to be done.
I must say I am blessed with a boss who speaks clearly and concisely when dicatating, and I never have to guess which file the dictation is being done on. (Sorry about the prepostion at the end of that sentence.) If he has a rush, it is clearly marked as such and brought to me, not just left lying around, and I am always approached in a very courteous manner.
My legal secretarial life has not always been so pleasant. I have had the egos (among other thigns) that needed stroking, the frat-boys who never grew up, a couple of outright pigs and the cheapskates.
I came into this area of the working world after having children and with one teen-ager left at home, I can say with some authority that handling attorneys is no worse that handling teenagers -- say what you mean, mean what you say, demand respect and you will get it.
Thanks for listening.

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