AN OPEN LETTER TO DETAIL-ORIENTED, FLEXIBLE, PSYCHIC, TACTFUL NEGOTIATORS (A.K.A LEGAL SECRETARIES) By Joyce Purvis

When I was in eighth grade the big assignment was to produce a poster of the job we wanted to have when we grew up. I  actually interviewed a legal secretary and I drew an office from my imagination since I had not actually ever been in a law office. (Nor did I know any attorneys.) It came about because my mother knew a lady from church and I was looking for some sort of secretary to portray. She was thin and wore suits and heels and always looked professional. I had been taking office support classes and knew I was going to end up in an office somewhere. As it turned out this was just the beginning of the journey and it would be many years until I would find myself actually working in a law office. Through my  interview, I found out I would have to type fast and perfectly (at this time I typed only 40 words per minute and not necessarily perfectly) and use carbon paper for copies (Xerox was just about to make their first copier affordable, but carbon was the secretary’s copy paper). There were no computers yet. No fax machines. We had electric typewriters, just barely, and I learned to type on an old Royal. Then there was shorthand. I was OK with shorthand, but not great. It scared me to think I would have to type letters perfectly, (since White Out had not been invented yet) from my notes.

At the time of my education, girls were given few choices of positions to work toward. I could have been a teacher, nurse, dental assistant, secretary, stewardess, wife/ mother, retail clerk, market clerk or any job that supported men in their positions. As necessary as the support positions were, we were not encouraged to achieve the position of doctor, dentist, lawyer, pilot or boss of any kind.

I took my secretarial classes and then attended a community college and learned to be a dental assistant. I stayed at the chair for a few years and then moved to the front office where I used my secretarial education daily. After ten years I found myself looking for something exciting, so I took professional makeup classes in Hollywood and got a little taste of television and cable got a little taste of television and cable shows. I got married and had two children and they became my full-time job, along with foster children for eleven years.

You may ask why I didn’t look for a job in a law setting since I had an interest in law. Well, the best answer is that I was waiting for the technology to catch up. I went into an office when computers and fax machines, cell phones, online research, software for forms, templates and Xerox machines made the secretary’s work life so much better.

I found a paralegal course at the adult school and took classes at night and worked part time at my church office and took care of my two children and two foster children. When my youngest child was in her senior year of high school, I went looking for my first job in a law office.

Luckily, my résumé made an impression on an office manager because of my PTA leadership, and she wanted to hire me; she was willing to teach me what I was missing about working in a law office. Law offices are not like other places of business. I was so stressed trying to make everything perfect, learning four different styles of letters, transcription, research techniques, proper language for legal matters, etc. that I was exhausted every day. I have had many jobs in my lifetime and working for an attorney is the hardest job I have ever held. And yet it was a job that I found to be a perfect fit for my interests and talents.

We have taught our daughters that they can be anything they want to be; the world is open to anything they can achieve. They have no desire to be the second banana to a boss. We have eliminated the desire to make an office run efficiently and smoothly just because we are good at it. We are not attracting young people into administrative positions because we have told them to reach for the stars.

Legal Secretaries Incorporated is a great organization, but even though the education we offer is welcomed and needed, we won’t attract young members based only on a secretarial platform. So, many members of the group have become paralegals in order to obtain a position that has more responsibility, is a part of a team and is billable. This was inevitable, yet only came about in the last twelve years or so.

How are we going to attract new secretaries?  Are there job fairs that feature legal secretaries? I haven’t seen ads for people who are detail-oriented, flexible, psychic, tactful, negotiators willing to run an office and keep it seamless while giving credit to the attorney and, most of the time, staying in the background.

Do our children see us as heroes? We do save the day very often, but are not recognized for our efforts. Do they admire our work ethic or is it old-fashioned to them? What kind of mentors should we be to make our field of work enticing? Does the next generation look for fulfilling work with a challenge attached to every project? I think law offices are going to continue to hire people to work in their offices with little or no legal background. They will teach them what they want them to know. They will be specialized employees without the whole picture of the vast world of law. And they will be paid less starting pay than if they knew about law. If you intern, you can be paid less until you gain the skills you need. Good for the attorneys, but not the employees.

The bottom line is fuzzy right now due to all the changes in the California courts and recent economic setbacks. There is a supply of unemployed people and nowhere to apply for a job. When the generation before me starts to retire, we won’t have a supply of knowledgeable younger administrators to fill the gaps.

I am the scholarship chair for Ventura County Legal Professionals Association. The people applying are always shooting for the stars. One or two were secretaries looking to become attorneys and were enrolled in law school or going to apply. We had a large donation from a life member of our group and the funds were   to educate only secretaries. We had great difficulty finding a way to use these funds because of that restriction. We eventually began using it to pay for dinner meetings for those not fortunate enough to have their employer pay their dues or meeting costs.

With online availability, the next generation of administrators will be looking for a position instead of waiting for a referral from family or friends, as was often the case in the past. Some may use the internet to post their jobs, but an office has to be ready to teach, teach, teach. Not every office is into helping its staff come up to speed. I was lucky and my first office did help me learn. Every office is a classroom, and productivity will slow down until an employee can handle the workload and still stay sane. The only advantage is that the next job pool will be computer savvy and probably better at all the electronic filing that is in our future.

We created this dilemma. Finding the right person for the job has been made much more difficult than when I applied for my first legal position. Where are all the people who want to organize words, calendars, files,  clients, attorneys, support staff and their desks? Should we recruit from the liberal arts colleges, high schools with business courses, job fairs for returning workers, or from those not attending college because of the cost? Can you adapt to the young attorneys who don’t need as much care, and work with many  bosses rather than just one? Are you the teacher? Can you teach someone to replace yourself? Experience has to be shared during this time of change.

Do human resource offices still have those tests for abilities? We need to find people who share our talents. Are they out there? We know the solo practice offices have secretary/paralegal administrators who are willing to take on the whole ball of wax. There is a talent in working closely with an attorney all day. Can that be taught or does it come naturally to a few of us? We learned to communicate by speaking to others. The new ones communicate with e-mail, iPhone and texts, and much less time face-to-face. Will this change the image of the law office in the near future? I guess if it is in writing, then it won’t be misunderstood and the courts will accept their communication as evidence.

Welcome to the roller coaster of the future. Can you be replaced when you decide to leave your office? Not likely. Everything will have to adapt to those young ones that will change the office and the world. Good luck!

Ventura County Legal Professionals Association is willing to hold a class and teach the new ones interested in finding a job in a law office. If interested, contact Mae Brooks, CCLS at Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP at (805)659-6800 or email mbrooks@fcoplaw.com. The class is open to anyone in support staff interested in expanding their knowledge.

Joyce D. Purvis is the vice-president of the Ventura County Legal Professionals Association. She can be reached at peaceful.endings@gmail.com or (805)582-2799           

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