Legal Secretaries

Effectively Utilizing Legal Secretaries in 2016

Note: This is a follow-up to my piece, “Are Legal Secretaries the Key to Increased Law Firm Profitability?

At what point is the cost of efficiency too high? At the point where client support is suffering and lawyers are no longer focused on using their ‘highest and best talents?’ —Jean P. O’Grady, J.D. M.L.S., in her blog regarding the 2015 American Lawyer Legal Intelligence Survey on law firm support staff.

Because of the time commitment and practice needed to move beyond quick fixes to a deeper level of knowledge, many lawyers and their staff never utilize the more complex features of their software. Therefore, they miss out on the benefits of improved workflows afforded by technology. However, as time crunches increase and technology changes happen more rapidly, it has become critical to understand and utilize all of the tools at your disposal to service clients, alleviate your frustrations, and gain a competitive edge. While you may not be able to devote time to those complex software features, your legal secretary should. Below are the competency categories that legal secretaries equipped for the 21st Century should be able to handle in order to take the load off of the attorneys they support. If you do not have a legal secretary, then to be most effective, you will want to become conversant with these functions and how to properly perform the tasks associated with each competency.

1. Management of Complex Documents

Virtually every legal practice area has some form of complex document with iterative review and editing cycles requiring multiple workflows to produce the final product. There is nothing thrilling or “sexy” about this use of technology, but it is one of the most critical areas for any lawyer. Documents are your widgets with the end product being produced for the client or governing entity. There is a huge opportunity in leveraging both technology and your legal secretary here. Not only is there an opportunity, but there is also risk. The potential for and cost of mistakes are generally highest where complex documents are involved. Never underestimate the benefit of an extra pair of hands and eyes reviewing your work product, especially when you are exhausted from hours spent drafting the substantive portions.

The types of documents that fall under the heading of “complex document” include: pleadings, briefs, transactional documents, inventories, and deal binders that may contain tables of authority and content, cross references, indices, hyperlinked items, and/or financial tables. Documents at this level involve significantly more than a quick CTRL+B to bold something. Unless you have invested substantial time and effort learning how to use the features that automate their creation, editing, and updating, there is nothing quick or easy, and you may end up more frustrated and confused than if you just formatted everything manually. However, you would miss substantial opportunities to streamline the entire drafting phase and future use of your documents.

Another common issue is leaving little to no time for creating tables of authority, automating numbering, or updating cross references, tables of content, and indices. If these items are set up correctly at the outset and regularly updated throughout the review cycle, doing final updates takes substantially less time. Also, many of these tasks like compiling materials and hyperlinking are not billable, so pushing complex document management to a less costly staff member means sound economic management of your clients’ matters and your practice. Get the basic knowledge you need to work on these documents, and leave it at that. Let your staff hone their deeper knowledge of Word and Adobe over years with numerous hours of practice, so you can focus on higher value tasks like constructing arguments and negotiating the terms contained in your documents.

Management of complex documents includes:
(software features to learn and use are italicized)

  1. Creating forms and templates
  2. Using QuickParts for boilerplate text, signature blocks, case styles, etc.
  3. Setting up styles and automatic numbering
  4. Managing sections and page layouts for cover pages, exhibits, etc.
  5. Creating and updating the table of contents
  6. Using heading styles to make updating automatic
  7. Inserting and updating automatic cross references
  8. Creating placeholder pages for the table of authorities or indices
  9. Running comparisons, keeping track of versions and incorporating changes (Even with Track Changes, this can sometimes be tricky with multiple parties doing edits.)
  10. Incorporating financial tables and electronic signatures
  11. Adding hyperlinks and bookmarks
  12. Producing and managing PDF versions of documents for filing or distribution

The term management is used in this context, because complex documents generally have a review cycle involving multiple people, be it other attorneys (internal and external), the client, or other associated parties like accountants or experts. I have assisted many secretaries scrambling to “clean up” 50-200 page documents at the last minute prior to a filing deadline or closing, because they had not seen the document since the initial draft they created weeks prior. Removing the assistant from the review cycle means additional time needed to become familiar with the document and figure out its current state before the “clean up” can even begin. This puts unnecessary stress on everyone involved and risks missing a deadline. If attorneys allow their assistants to manage the process of incorporating the changes throughout the process, then there should be much less scrambling at the last hour. This also allows the attorney to focus on the content versus the formatting of these critical documents.

Years ago, anyone could print a document and rush to the courthouse to file it, but that time has passed. Here in Texas, civil courts began converting to mandatory e-filing in 2014 with all 254 counties to be completed by the end of this year and criminal courts soon to follow. If it can be accomplished here with so many disparate systems, it is only a matter of time before it comes to your jurisdiction. Both the process of preparing documents for e-filing and the e-filing follow-up workflows are additional areas where a substantial amount of time is spent and thus may be optimized to your advantage.

2. Managing Email, Calendar, and Contacts

As I mentioned in my last post, I was surprised when my attorney brother said that it had never occurred to him to utilize his secretary to manage his email and calendar. The statistics I cited previously indicate most people check email approximately 50 times per day and that task interruptions require from 3% to 27% more time to complete tasks. Imagine the focus you could have and productive time you could gain without the constant dinging. Some interruptions may be unavoidable, but with your assistant watching for urgent items and handling quick questions or requests, you are free to spend a lot more time focusing more deeply on your matters and billable tasks.

Of course, this requires much trust and a bit of communication to lay the groundwork and set expectations at the outset, but it’s not rocket science, especially the filing of emails and attachments into client folders or a document management system. Ideally, your assistant will have full rights to your mailbox to be your eyes and ears even when you are in meetings or out of the office. If you are not comfortable with this approach at the outset, you can forward items until such time that you are comfortable fully sharing your mailbox. This setup dovetails nicely into the complex document management discussed previously. Relinquish control of these mundane tasks and you will reap massive benefits in your ability to get more meaningful work done.

3. Forms Creation and Management

Leverage your secretary’s knowledge of technology and the features in your software to build a bullet-proof forms system. Imagine the time saved and satisfaction in knowing that you are set up for success every single time you generate a document. I have worked with quite a few practice groups to do this and they are always surprised at how much smoother things flow afterwards. Those glitches that seem to crop up at the last minute are completely eliminated.

To accomplish this, the group should start by gathering their current forms. Those forms should then be updated to new, clean document containers and have all of the bells and whistles incorporated to automate them. This is most easily accomplished by utilizing someone with advanced knowledge of the features in order to set your foundation. Next, ensure all of the secretaries and paralegals in the group are utilizing the features correctly. Finally, the attorneys learn only those important features necessary to maintain the formatting, leverage the automation included, and save re-work time. The need for assistance on weekends and evenings disappears or is significantly reduced, because the attorneys are confident in how the documents will behave and in their skills with things like styles and numbering. Getting everyone on the same page and off to a clean start makes a world of difference!

4. Client Relations

Think about how many phone calls and emails you receive that are simple requests or queries. Now picture your assistant handling those for you. If your staff are included in the process of servicing your clients, then they have the ability to answer many questions or draft responses for you to send. The benefits of this are two-fold. Clients get that personal touch and high level of customer service desired, instead of your voicemail, and you are freed up to spend more focused time on higher value tasks versus retrieving and responding to voicemails and emails. An added bonus is that your secretary has more meaningful work and will likely feel more engaged as a result. Don’t be afraid to let staff work with clients. Simply set the right example and guidelines.
At a time when gaining and keeping clients is very costly, servicing their needs well and quickly is crucial. If you are unsure about letting your assistant handle client communications for you, then have responses drafted and saved for you to finalize and send later. Even just the time you spend setting up and saving documents or emails adds up over the course of a month, especially when you are the client waiting for a response.

5. Client Matter Management

Attorneys have always hated dealing with the administrative minutiae involved in conflicts checking and establishing a new matter or client. Yet efficient client onboarding can greatly impact the time involved in getting started working on a matter, not to mention the impression made on the client about how important their matter is to you.

Establish a process and use forms so that your assistant can take your notes and information received from the client to tackle the initial matter setup for you. Better yet, have your assistant participate in the intake interview to take notes, so you can focus on capturing the substantive details of the client’s legal issue and asking follow-up questions to minimize the need to have the client provide the information again at a later date.

Delegate the online researching of basic client information to your secretary. If it’s a simple Google search, anyone can handle that. Create a workflow for the administrative setup in your contacts and billing system, drafting the engagement letter, and flagging any additional items needed from the client. Following the suggestions made previously, your secretary can then draft an email or letter to the client requesting additional information that you can send. All of the documents and emails should be fill-in-the-blank templates that make the process flow smoothly and quickly.

Use these suggestions to stop wasting time on low value tasks, put tools in place to improve your common workflows, and establish routines with your secretary that maximize his or her value to you and your practice. This will allow you to spend time maximizing your profits and minimizing your frustration, as well as make your secretary a more engaged employee. What are you waiting for? Pick one of the five areas to delegate to your assistant right now and determine where you can start leveraging your secretary and technology to gain back time.

About Michelle Spencer

Michelle Spencer
Michelle is the founder of the Legal Learning Development Network, a training and consulting company focused on law firms and legal departments. For three decades, Michelle worked in law firms of every size, most recently as the training manager of an AmLaw 100 international firm. Early in her career she worked as a legal secretary and paralegal in numerous practice areas. For the last 17 years, she has been providing training, as well as desktop configuration and support, and believes strongly in understanding the demands on her users and the work they do. Having served as an officer of the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) for the past five years, Michelle is well-known in the legal community and is a frequent speaker and writer on law firm training, professional development, and technology related topics. After being an advocate for law firm electronic filers, Michelle was appointed to the Texas Judicial Committee on Information Technology as they implemented mandated e-filing in courts across the State of Texas.

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