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When recruiter Deborah O’Drain-Gibson started placing legal secretaries with law firms 20 years ago, each lawyer was assigned their own secretary, whose responsibilities often included taking shorthand and getting their bosses’ coffee and lunch. As firms have become more businesslike and information technology has become ubiquitous in the legal industry, a new study reveals that a decreasing number of legal secretaries are being assigned to each lawyer. Even so, the study notes, hiring needs for that valuable support staff position have not waned. The placement firm Today’s Legal Staffing has compiled a study called “The Evolving Role of Legal Secretaries in Philadelphia,” which shows that 41 percent of firms are still employing one secretary for every two lawyers, while another 18 percent employ fewer secretaries per lawyer. Within two years, the study predicts, 47 percent of firms will be employing one secretary for every three lawyers, with another nine percent employing a higher proportion of secretaries. Despite those changes in staffing ratios, O’Drain-Gibson, now an account executive at Today’s Legal Staffing, said quality legal secretaries are in greater demand than they were 15 years ago. That’s because while people are not being laid off as firms shoot for a more efficient support staff ratio, many legal secretaries are leaving the profession. In addition, O’Drain-Gibson said younger people in Philadelphia have traditionally not had the benefit of a centralized training program. But the Philadelphia Legal Secretaries Association is trying to change that by sponsoring three different training programs: one for entry-level secretaries, one for more experienced ones and another for those looking to pick up paralegal skills. “People are leaving the profession,” said Patricia Infante, the former president of PLSA who has been a legal secretary for 29 years, the past 14 of which have been spent at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. “It’s a very demanding profession. A lot of times when these younger people are hired and assigned to an attorney, they are told that things can be rearranged if it doesn’t work out. But when that time comes, they are often put in a bad position and they just leave altogether. “The other problem is that we are not getting good people to come into the profession. A lot of younger people look down on being a secretary or an assistant. So there’s a status issue that the paralegal profession doesn’t have to deal with. And the ones firms are hiring have good computer skills, but no other skills. Just because they understand WordPerfect, it doesn’t mean they understand what they are doing or why.” TRAINING PROGRAMS That’s why Infante said current PLSA president Bonita Ortiz, a legal secretary at Cozen O’Connor, is initiating the training programs, which consist of a 26-week course that mixes legal training with tips on things such as office procedures and telephone etiquette. The classes cost $250 if the participant is a PLSA member and $325 if her or she is not. Infante said the 100-member PLSA has never garnered much respect from local firm management, who at first feared that the group was attempting to unionize and just spent its meetings kvetching about boorish bosses and paltry salaries. John Kirk, Manko Gold Katcher & Fox’s director of administration and immediate past president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, said that firms need to support training initiatives and more actively recruit at secretarial schools. Kirk said higher ratios of lawyers to secretaries are especially in force at large firms, which now have copy, file and word processing centers that eliminate secretarial duties. He said you also have to factor in technological advancements such as computers, e-mail and voice mail. On top of that, younger attorneys are more computer-literate and handle more of their own document preparation and correspondence. Midsize firms are not moving in the direction of a 3-to-1 lawyer-to-secretary staffing ratio at quite so fast a pace as small and large firms. BY THE NUMBERS According to the Today’s Legal Staffing survey — which polled 42 firms in Philadelphia — firms with between 10 and 35 lawyers foresee having a 2-to-1 ratio or below by 2006. In 2004, 47 percent of those firms say they plan to have a 2-to-1 ratio while only 5 percent plan for a 3-to-1 ratio. In 2006, 50 percent of firms intend to maintain a 2-to-1 ratio while 38 percent intend to maintain a 3-to-1 ratio. The majority of firms with between 35 and 75 attorneys project that they will have 2.5 attorneys for each secretary. In 2004, only 17 percent envision having a 2-to-1 ratio at year’s end, while 83 percent plan on the 2.5-to-1 ratio. In 2006, none of those firms project having a 2-to-1 ratio, while 50 percent say they will have a 2.5-to-1 ratio. Another 50 percent are planning for a 3-to-1 ratio. At firms with 10 or fewer attorneys, none will have a 2-to-1 ratio in 2004, while 67 percent will have a 3-to-1 ratio. In 2006, a third of those firms project having a 1-to-1 ratio, a third project a 3-to-1 ratio and a third project a 4-to-1 ratio. And at firms with 75 or more attorneys, only 11 percent project they will have a 2-to-1 ratio in 2004, while 44 percent said they will have a 3-to-1 ratio. In 2006, none of those firms project having a 2-to-1 ratio, while 67 percent project a 3-to-1 ratio. MIDSIZE FIRMS O’Drain-Gibson said that midsize firms do not maintain sufficient support personnel to handle copy, delivery and filing duties. Therefore, they require more legal secretaries per attorney. She added that those firms are not as highly leveraged with associates as large firms. Kirk said senior partners such as Manko Gold Chairman Joe Manko require their own secretary, but that four first-year associates could split the services of one. Infante believes that small firms have seen their staffing ratios decline because most do not have the finances to support anything more. While technology has eliminated a number of their traditional duties, legal secretaries still must juggle the personalities of three different lawyers — each one of whom believes their work is the most important. “I always say that our legal secretaries now wind up being a third traffic cop, a third paralegal and a third traditional secretary,” Kirk said. “They are not just a production clerk anymore. They are heavily involved with billing and dealing with clients. They know a lot about what’s going on with cases and deals. They are now an integral part of the team.”

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