I was just thinking the other day how pivotal a good secretary can be to one’s happiness as a solicitor. They are a very important part of the process. I am looking at this topic from two perspectives: from the perspective of someone who has worked as a secretary while a student and from the perspective of someone who has had a secretary while a solicitor.
While I was working as a secretary, I was shocked at how rudely I was sometimes treated. There seemed to be an assumption by some people that because I was a secretary I had subnormal intelligence. Fortunately, the solicitors with whom I worked directly did not fall into this category, but other solicitors (or even other secretaries) from other firms were frequently rude and dismissive. I decided that I would never be rude or unprofessional to a secretary. Even on a purely pragmatic basis, you never know when you’ll come across people again. I worked in the Court system for a time and was abused by a number of solicitors over the phone. I assure you, I remember each of these solicitors very clearly.
When I went into practice as a solicitor, the shoe was on the other foot. Suddenly, I was an Articled Clerk, lowest species of life in the legal jungle. I was technically given a secretary, but it was in name only. Anything I gave to her would be put in the inbox and left there for days. Or she would hand it back with an impatient sigh, and say, “Must you bother me right now, I’ve got important stuff to do for a partner. Can’t you type it yourself?” and I would wander off guiltily, sorry for bothering her. [One wonders rather nastily whether a male articled clerk would be treated with the same dismissiveness?] Oh well, I thought. It will all be fine once I qualify as a solicitor. The naivety of youth!
I will confess that in one of my later jobs, my secretary (or really, non-secretary) made me quite miserable. She wasn’t a bad person, but she didn’t want to work for a junior solicitor. Full stop. I probably started off on a bad foot by asking her very nicely for things: “Um, if you have time, would you mind typing this for me?” Yes. She did mind. Be firmer, the other secretaries urged me, noticing this treatment. Don’t give her an option. I was damned by my own niceness and my determination to treat people politely. OK. I steeled myself.
“Hi, I’ve got a letter which has to be out by 5pm today. Thanks,” and I put it down on her desk with a post-it note as to time and address. At 4:45pm, I wandered past her desk and was horrified to see the tape still sitting there.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I just had all these things to do for the partner.” Subtext: his work is far more important than yours.
“Well, this is for him, too,” I tried. “He won’t be happy that this letter isn’t sent.” The other secretaries gave me “thumbs-up” gestures from behind their partitions.
“Humph,” she snorted.
No, I refuse to do this, I thought. It’s a matter of principle. Otherwise I spend my day doing administrative stuff – and who gets charged for that?
The next morning the letter was still there. I gave up. I typed it and sent it myself.
I ended up having to raise my issues with my secretary, then with the partner and finally with human resources. Nothing changed. Then I got in trouble for having lots of administrative time in my timesheets. I explained that I had a secretary who wouldn’t do my work for me, no matter what I did and how firm I was. Still nothing changed.
Suffice to say that I don’t work for that firm any more. This was a part of why I ended up leaving.
What is my point? My point is that legal secretaries are very important. This should be remembered by everyone: solicitors, partners and secretaries themselves.
If you are a solicitor who has a nice secretary who does your work well, treasure her (or him). Never treat your secretary rudely or dismissively or like she (or he) is a lower form of life.
If you are a legal secretary, try to be kind to junior solicitors. If they are arrogant, take them in hand and give them a lesson on how to behave, but don’t just refuse to do anything for them. Just because junior solicitors aren’t partners doesn’t mean that we are not important and it doesn’t mean that our work is not sometimes equally important. Most of it emanates from a partner, so by not doing our work, you are effectively refusing to do the partner’s work and costing the firm time and money.