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Experienced legal secretaries and paralegals are hot commodities in today’s legal industry. And they know it. “The issues of staff shortages exist across the entire country,” said David Lopater, national director of human resources for Dallas-based Jenkens & Gilchrist. The paralegal profession is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2008, paralegal positions are projected to increase by 84,000 — 62 percent — over 1998 tallies. During the same 10-year period, average growth of 14 percent is predicted for legal secretaries. Staffing experts say the demand for experienced legal secretaries is outpacing the supply of qualified candidates. “Years ago, we had an abundance of secretaries, but now we’re losing the younger crowd,” said Maria Hoffman, office manager of Dallas-based Paralegals Plus. The problem is one of perception, said Julie Abernathy, president of the Texas Association of Legal Secretaries. “Part of it has to do with the identity and the misnomer by the younger generations that don’t like to be known as legal secretaries,” she said. “They’d rather be known as legal assistants. They’re confused. They don’t just want to answer phones and type letters, but there’s more to the job than that.” This classic supply-and-demand scenario has turned the tables for support staffers who have long complained that they are underpaid and overworked. Two recently hired secretaries agree that there are no shortages of available positions. Wendy Mize was working at a small firm when she received a call from a placement agency asking if she’d be interested in pursuing some other opportunities. She went on about seven interviews, three of which were at law firms, she said. When the job offers rolled in, Mize accepted an offer in the Dallas office of Austin-based Brown McCarroll & Oaks Hartline. “There is no comparison between this job and my last one,” she said. “Here, I’m treated more like a person. At the other place, I was more of a workhorse — they really worked me hard over there. Here, I’m asked my opinion and given the opportunity to have some input.” Pam Smith, a legal secretary with 15 years’ experience, recently found herself seeking a new position. Smith spent 14 years at a firm and left last August to work for a firm in Dallas. In January, she went to work for a couple opening a small law office. “I loved it, and I loved them,” she said. “I just couldn’t take the pay cut.” So, she started interviewing. Out of three interviews, Smith received three offers and accepted the one from the Dallas office of Cleveland-based Arter & Hadden. Traditionally, firms only wanted people with experience in the legal industry, but all that’s changing now, said Mary Alice Naiser, a placement coordinator in the Austin office of Houston-based Prescott Legal Search. “Law firms are now considering people with no legal experience but [who have experience] in the business sector,” she said. “Examples are people working in insurance, banking or real estate … They’re finally looking outside the box at solutions they haven’t previously considered.” Ken Menges, chairman of the Dallas office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, agreed. “We’re using a different staffing model with some success,” he said. “We’ve been able to transition some people from secretarial statuses and nontraditional areas.” Another option Akin Gump is considering is the development of a staff professional program, Menges said. “We’re looking at hiring college graduates who want to do something gainful for a year or two before going to law or business school.” And more firms are starting in-house training programs for secretaries and paralegals. “We’re taking promising people and putting them through a structured program,” Lopater said. FIRM CULTURE As more and more big firms hire rising-star candidates, small and mid-sized firms will also have to develop training programs, Abernathy said. In addition, firms are beefing up their benefits packages. “Akin Gump is exploring options such as more paid time off and more training,” Menges said. Superior benefits are mandatory in today’s market, Lopater said. “From a financial standpoint, the difference in dollars is beginning to wash away,” he explains. “Secretaries and paralegals are becoming much more sophisticated in their knowledge of compensation and benefits. They are very astute buyers. During the interview process, we get some very specific questions, not just on compensation and overtime, but on the full range of benefits. It becomes incumbent on the employer to stay current. There was a period of time when employers weren’t watching the marketplace.” However, additional benefits aren’t enough to retain and recruit quality staffers, said Bob Reetz, managing partner of Austin-based Hilgers & Watkins. “We’re doing things for the staff to show them that we appreciate them,” he said. “This produces a commitment from them toward the firm, and that gives us longevity. You have to differentiate yourself and give them more than just a paycheck reason for being there. Getting their loyalty is important.” Lopater agreed. “Truly cutting-edge organizations are going to have to take a look at their reward and recognition programs — those programs that acknowledge people for contributions,” he said. “Everyone has compensation and benefits packages. Ultimately, it comes down to the culture. You can have the best compensation and the best benefits, but if you don’t have a culture that respects people and helps them grow, you run the risk of losing those people on a regular basis.” This story originally appeared in Texas Legal Pro.

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