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Mary McDonald spent the early days of her career pounding the keys of an Underwood manual typewriter and hoping that whomever wound up squinting at the last carbon copy would be able to decipher it. Thirty-one years later, the Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe legal secretary is trying to stay on top of the 100th e-mail of the day. Despite the crush, “it’s a much more efficient process now,” she says of her chores in the increasingly high-tech workplace. With the rise of e-mail, e-filings and other efficiency-related advancements, many legal secretaries are experiencing a noticeable shift in their duties and responsibilities. But the shift has not occurred as abruptly as some might have imagined it would. Janis Tarniff, a Pillsbury Winthrop administrator who managed the firm’s Silicon Valley outpost in California from 1993 to 2000, says that attorneys in 1990 remained almost 100 percent dependent on their secretaries. “The expectation was that by 2010 it’d be 10 percent secretary-dependent,” says Tarniff, a former legal secretary. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Most attorneys still rely a great deal on their secretaries, albeit in different ways compared to the past. Dora Mao, managing partner of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s San Francisco office, has always done a fair amount of her own typing and drafting. But “my secretary is more technologically adept than I am,” she says. “So in that respect, I need him more now.” Tarniff argues that the secretarial role in, say, 1997 was not all that different from what it was in 1957. “One of the things that is perplexing is that as an industry, we had instituted helplessness,” she says. “When I first started, secretaries had to be very bright and have strong skill sets. Then we sat and waited to be told what to do.” Things began to change in the mid-to-late 1990s, says Tarniff, when firms started to realize that secretaries weren’t being utilized in the same ways they had been in the past. Many new attorneys were coming into firms with technological know-how and touch-typing skills and weren’t sure what to do with a secretary. A. Marisa Chun, an associate at Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass, calls it a generational difference. Unlike older attorneys who may still rely on their secretaries to type and transcribe, she does these things herself. Consequently, Chun is more interested in a tech-savvy secretary than one who can type 80 words per minute. “It is invaluable to have a secretary who is familiar with e-filings,” she says. “I think that at some point courts won’t take hard-copy briefs anymore.” That’s why secretaries who aren’t up to speed technologically will find their opportunities for advancement very limited, according to recruiters and law firm administrators. “I tell my students to learn as many software skills as humanly possible,” says Dietra Corliss Prater-Slack, director of legal secretary and paralegal studies at Skyline College in San Bruno, Calif. “To have only document skills just isn’t enough,” she says. She is proposing the college’s first legal course focusing solely on software and technology. Educational resources abound for secretaries who want to catch up or keep up. Recruiting firms offer computer courses covering thousands of programs, local secretarial associations conduct workshops, and most firms hold in-house training sessions. But even hopping in the elevator to attend an in-house high-tech crash course can be a challenge. “Heller offers technology classes,” says McDonald. “But it’s hard for me to get away from my desk.” For the most part, legal secretaries rave about advancements in technology, cheering the fact that mundane tasks have become easier. “I used to fax a document to Germany at six minutes a page and would have to stay until midnight to make sure it got through,” says Judy Wong, a legal secretary at Fenwick & West. Wong can now zap the same document via e-mail in a matter of seconds. Wong’s colleague, Joanne Hylton, says that while her day-to-day responsibilities seem much the same as always, one welcome difference is that she no longer has to queue up at the copy machines. While secretarial tasks in the past might have included everything from photocopying and collating to stamping and mailing documents, the process is now as streamlined as a digital scan followed by an instant e-mail to a client. There is a flipside to all that streamlining. “Where we used to do 100 things in a day, we now do 250,” says Hylton. The convenience of e-mail, for example, has quickly resulted in a lot more e-mail to print and file. Technology seems to be creating more, not less, paper for law firms and their staffs. Despite the mounting volume of paper, many legal secretaries and attorneys agree that technology — from cell phones to Blackberrys — has enhanced their ability to communicate. In doing so, it makes for better working relationships. But many of these same advances also have their downsides. Because so much attorney-client contact increasingly comes in the form of direct e-mail, some attorneys inadvertently leave their secretaries out of the information loop. “Some feel a little lost, as though their attorney is off doing all this stuff and not talking to them,” says Anne Burcell, administrative manager at San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster. The problem is sometimes exacerbated because the old tradition of pairing up one secretary with one attorney has all but gone the way of those creaky manual typewriters. Instead, each legal secretary at many firms now works with three attorneys, with some firms looking to stretch that number to four. Some don’t expect the ratio to go much higher than that, however. “There’s a certain point where it levels off, and you just can’t get more efficient,” says Katy Little at Access Legal Recruiting in San Francisco. In fact, seasoned legal secretaries for the most part have managed to weather the economic storms of the past year or so. Layoffs have been rare. And while salaries have taken a slight dip, secretarial wages in the San Francisco Bay Area remain among the highest in the nation, according to The Affiliates, a national legal staffing firm. A secretary with one or two years’ experience can expect to earn about $43,000 at a large San Francisco firm. Adding on another five years or so worth of experience translates into a $58,000 salary at that same firm. Numbers aside, some experienced legal secretaries remain miffed with the changing nature of their jobs. “At the firm I just left, the attorneys were completely self-sufficient and had no idea what I did,” says a 12-year veteran who recently left a large San Francisco firm to look for work elsewhere. “The only people who really knew what was going on were the attorneys,” says the secretary, who asked to remain anonymous. Others have no such complaints. Heather Adler, a legal secretary at Morrison & Foerster, says it’s not hard to keep up with the attorneys. “I scan everything that comes across my desk, so I know what they’re doing,” says Adler, who also chairs the Bay Area Legal Secretaries Forum. Molly Shawger, manager of secretarial and document production services in Heller Ehrman’s Silicon Valley office, says she has witnessed a substantial increase in client-secretary interaction. “Attorneys here rely on secretaries to take that first call, find out what they can do,” she says. “They thrive on that, and attorneys look at them as a real part of the team.” To some lawyers, keeping a secretary up to date on client business makes for better legal service all around. “The more she’s in the loop,” Chun says of her secretary at Coblentz Patch, “the more she’s able to help me.” Burcell says legal secretaries increasingly perform a valuable coordinating role within firms. “I see them as the hub — reading everything, scheduling, tracking, anticipating,” she says. “It is a more challenging position now.” Prater-Slack, at Skyline College, predicts that editing skills will increasingly be expected of secretaries, particularly if voice-recognition software becomes more prevalent. “The ability to draft legal documents will be mandatory,” she says. Typing, however, is on its way out. “Attorneys often do their own data entry while they’re thinking,” says Burcell. “Someone has to make it look pretty, but more frequently now that job goes to a word processor because of the complexities of the word-processing system.” Many large firms, Morrison & Foerster included, have separate word-processing departments that crank out copy around the clock. While some secretaries revel in the notion that lightning-fast typing speeds are no longer an essential job requirement, others miss at least some aspects of the days of old. And some think the changes add up to boredom. “The job has gone from being a secretary to being a clerk,” says the secretary who recently left her San Francisco firm. “When I first started as a legal secretary I wrote half the letters myself. It took creativity. Now, you just fill in boxes instead of typing,” she says. “It’s time to start digging into the rulebooks and get paralegal training. Attorneys won’t need secretaries anymore.” In fact, the line between legal secretaries and paralegals has long been blurred. The first paralegals to emerge in the 1960s came from the ranks of experienced secretaries who typically received additional in-house legal training. Later, outside training programs were created. By the early 1980s, the U.S. Labor Department announced that paralegals were the fastest growing profession in the country. The buzz at the time was that paralegals would bump secretaries into oblivion. That clearly hasn’t happened; highly qualified legal secretaries remain as much in demand today as ever. Still, the roles of legal secretaries and paralegals have continued to evolve. “Secretaries have had to upgrade into areas that paralegals used to do,” says Donald Bradley, who serves as in-house corporate counsel at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto. “And paralegals have moved up to take greater responsibility in preparing documents.” Early last year, Wilson Sonsini instituted structural changes brought about by the overlap between secretaries and paralegals, according to Michelle Blackard, the firm’s director of legal support. Rather than have separate secretarial and paralegal managers in each department, the two positions have been melded into one. “It provides one-stop shopping for attorneys,” says Blackard, explaining that a single manager now has a better grasp of what’s happening at all levels throughout each department. Lori Hunt, a legal secretary at 21-lawyer Gaw, Van Male, Smith, Myers & Miroglio in Napa, says secretaries at smaller firms have always carried out paralegal and secretarial functions. Hunt, currently serving as president of the Bay Area Legal Secretaries Forum, considers herself a jack-of-all-trades. She has her own secretarial assistant to handle routine correspondence, document finalization and other office tasks. Prater-Slack says the skills required of a legal secretary and a paralegal are exactly the same. But while the number of students enrolling in Skyline’s legal secretarial program has remained consistent over the past few years, the number going through the paralegal program have been steadily increasing. “Unfortunately because of the women’s movement, the term ‘secretary’ is not viewed as positively as in the past,” says Prater-Slack. Heller’s McDonald is not surprised to hear that. “People have higher goals and standards now,” she says. “They want to be lawyers.” “But,” she adds, perhaps picturing how far she has come as a secretary since she sat in front of her old Underwood, “they should know it can be a very rewarding position.” Lauren Gard is a free-lance writer in San Francisco and a former reporter at The Recorder.

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