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LOS ANGELES � A recent legal secretary job ad posted online by a Silicon Valley recruiting firm sought a candidate who had strong knowledge of the Patent and Trademark Office’s rules and procedures, its online site and the Code of Federal Regulations. Another site’s ad sought a real estate legal secretary with experience ordering and reviewing tract, ownership and judgment and tax lien searches � as well as the ability to analyze mortgages, loan documents and other financials. As attorneys’ practices become more and more specialized, some legal secretaries are developing more targeted expertise in areas ranging from intellectual property to corporate transactions. Recruiters and veteran legal secretaries say it’s important to set your path early, though there are various ways of changing course mid-career, from outside training to in-firm strategies. “It’s moving more toward specialization � candidates with specialized skills are going to be more marketable,” said Katie Knueven, who works with legal secretaries for Gibson Arnold & Associates, a recruiting firm with offices in Los Angeles, Denver and Houston. When choosing a specialty, there are a lot of considerations, from interest to demand to salary. Recruiters say corporate law and litigation are popular choices since the subject matters tend to be diverse, and the demand is high. On one recent day alone, one recruiting company, Davidson Legal Staffing, had 15 openings for a litigation legal secretary. Intellectual property is also a hot area since salaries tend to be high, said Daniele Souza, an Orange County-based recruiter with Davidson. “It generally pays more than other positions, and I think the pay is enticing.” On average, salaries for legal secretaries fall in the range of $55,000 to $75,000, depending upon the size of the firm, according to several recruiters. Working for a rainmaker can command pay upward of $85,000. And more specialized areas such as intellectual property can offer as much as $90,000. Overtime can add even more to the package. When it comes to lifestyle concerns, it’s more about the firm environment and less about the practice area. Larger firms may offer a more balanced schedule since many use “floaters” to fill in on extra work, and employ evening secretaries. They also have support staff that can take care of tasks such as word processing or handling mail. STUMBLING INTO SPECIALTIES Often, secretaries fall into their niche by accident. Take Karen Rogers, an intellectual property secretary with Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner in San Jose. About 15 years ago, Rogers was working as a general legal secretary for a software company in Scotts Valley. When she came back from maternity leave, the company asked her to work for a new patent attorney who’d been hired while she was away � a completely new area for her. “He was very particular, so he trained me in the nitty-gritty of patents,” she recalled. She learned about the critical formatting required, the essential deadlines, and gained familiarity with the U.S. patent office � skills she was able to market when she later joined Thelen Reid. “It’s really interesting work,” she said. “Once people have this niche, they stay because you can make a lot of money.” If a legal secretary wants to change course mid-career, there are several options. While some insist outside training can give an added edge, others argue that the best schooling comes from inside a firm.
While some insist outside training can give an added edge, others argue that the best schooling comes from inside a firm.

“If someone wants to specialize in a different area, our association can help them tremendously because they can come to workshops and get information on areas such as family law,” said Heather Edwards, a spokeswoman for the California nonprofit Legal Secretaries, Incorporated. “If you are a legal secretary who has been doing probate for 10 years, and [who] all of a sudden wants to move to family law, attending would be helpful with the transition.” Every quarter, the organization hosts educational conferences throughout the state, offering workshops in various areas of law. At an upcoming conference in Palm Springs, they’ll have workshops on areas ranging from SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motions in civil litigation, to fiduciary duty in family law. The group keeps abreast of trends when scheduling seminars, Edwards said. “IP is the new area that a lot of attorneys are specializing in.” Dee Beardsley, the president-elect of NALS, an association for legal professionals, says that even general certification courses put an essential feather in your cap for the interview process. Beardsley, who now works for Latham & Watkins in San Diego, recalls a job she applied for several years ago. It came down to her and another candidate, and she pointed out the PLS behind her name, representing the legal professional certification she had taken the time to obtain on her own time � and dime. After she landed the job, Beardsley remembers the hiring administrator telling her that training like that shows a firm a candidate is career-oriented and self-motivated. Over the years, Beardsley has attended training programs to work on refining skills as well as less quantitative talents such as dealing with clients and co-workers. That’s useful in a firm like Latham & Watkins, where secretaries aren’t departmentalized. There, the secretaries Beardsley manages may work for multiple attorneys in a variety of practice areas � for example, one in corporate, one in litigation and one in environmental law. “That’s why I look for the core competency of loving to learn,” she said. Some say it’s good to get the training on the job, getting one’s foot in the door at a firm and then trying to move around to various specialties, or ask for overflow work in an area of interest. Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton legal secretary Ed White agreed that getting in the door at a big firm can be a useful strategy. If someone leaves, a legal secretary could ask to be reassigned, and there’s always the option of inquiring if there’s going to be an upcoming opening in a field of interest. But White said he hasn’t seen too much movement in his 17 years at Sheppard, Mullin. Once you get comfortable with a partner or practice area, he said, it creates a nice environment, and there are myriad benefits to sticking around. White said he’s on a first-name basis with clients, and he enjoys the in-depth knowledge he’s acquired about the cases and in-house counsel. “Most of the secretaries I’ve known have stuck with whatever practice group or partners they always have,” he said. For those who do want a change, some firms are creating mentorship programs, said David Brittman, a recruiter who places legal secretaries for San Francisco’s ABA Search & Staffing. That can be useful in areas such as patent law that can benefit from additional training. Still, he added, some of the skills that make great legal secretaries can’t be taught, either in house or out. “You can train someone in software, but how do you train someone to be curious, charming or witty?” he said. Kellie Schmitt is a reporter for The Recorder, which publishes Legal Pro. She can be reached at [email protected].

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