The role of legal secretaries, also known as administrative assistants and legal assistants, has evolved in the past two decades. As technology continues to transform the law office, legal secretaries have transcended traditional roles of typing and answering phones to perform high-value activities once reserved for professional and managerial staff such as selecting vendors, managing client relationships and drafting legal documents.
However, despite the legal secretary’s practice environment, firm size or legal specialty, certain core responsibilities have remained the same. To succeed in today’s law office or corporate law department, legal secretaries must master the 10 skills below. For more on success as a legal secretary or legal assistant, review these 8 traits of a successful legal secretary and 8 skills you need to succeed as a legal assistant.
1. Technology Skills
Many attorneys have neither the time nor expertise to operate law office technology. They rely on tech-savvy legal secretaries to perform a variety of computer-based tasks such as: creating spreadsheets, preparing presentations, entering time for billing purposes, creating and typing documents, maintaining calendars and tracking deadlines. Therefore, legal secretaries who are proficient in a variety of computer software applications will have the most career opportunities. Some of the most common technologies that legal secretaries must master include:
- Word processing
- Document Management
- Time & Billing
- Calendar & Docketing
- Desktop Publishing
2. Interpersonal Skills
Legal secretaries interact daily with attorneys, paralegals, staff, clients, opposing counsel, judicial personnel, vendors and other third-parties. Therefore, top-notch interpersonal and communication skills are essential. In addition to face-to-face contact, secretaries communicate by e-mail, telephone and videoconferencing systems.
3. Writing Skills
Think attorneys perform all the writing? Think again. Legal secretaries are frequently responsible for drafting routine correspondence and file memos as well as proofreading legal documents such as pleadings, briefs, discovery and transactional documents. Writing is an integral part of the legal secretary’s job; those who develop strong writing skills will become indispensible to the attorneys they assist.
4. Organizational Skills
Attorneys are notoriously disorganized. Since legal secretaries are the attorney’s “right hand man,” organizational skills are essential to efficiently manage a law practice or corporate legal department. Legal secretaries must maintain paper and electronic files, manage projects, track multiple deadlines, maintain calendars, schedule meetings, organize events and keep everything orderly and accessible.
5. Transcription Skills
Transcription skills are foundational to secretarial practice. In addition to a fast typing speed (employer requirements vary from 50 to 100 words per minute), keen listening skills are required to comprehend voice dictation files. Strong grammar, spelling, vocabulary and language skills are necessary as well an understanding of legal terminology. In addition, secretaries must be proficient in word processing applications and transcription equipment.
6. Attention to Detail
Attention to detail is critical in the legal profession. For example, typing $600,000 in a settlement offer instead of $60,000 could cost your firm a client. Legal secretaries handle the minutiae of daily law practice and attention to detail is important in nearly every secretarial task from drafting and proofreading documents to scheduling meetings and calendaring deadlines.
7. Familiarity with Legal Documents and Terminology
What’s the difference between a secretary and a legal secretary? Legal secretaries are familiar with all things legal. Terms like subpoena, pro se and voir dire don’t befuddle them. They understand the nuances of legal procedure and know how to create and format pleadings, discovery and transactional documents.
Teamwork is crucial to the role of legal secretaries in delivering legal services. In all practice settings – from large corporate legal department to solo practitioner - legal secretaries must team with attorneys, paralegals, secretaries, file clerks, vendors and others to deliver legal services effectively. The most efficient legal secretaries know how to get along with co-workers and collaborate with third parties to get the job done.
9. Multi-Tasking Skills
Most legal secretaries work for more than one person on more than one file. Simultaneously performing multiple tasks is second-nature to a competent legal secretary. They know how to juggle multiple assignments and competing priorities and how to manage growing workloads in today’s busy law office where one person frequently performs the job of three.
10. Research skills
Legal secretaries perform Internet research for a multitude of tasks such as finding directions, gathering client information, researching the competition and locating expert witnesses. Many legal secretaries, particularly those in small law offices, also perform paralegal duties, including legal research, cite checking and tracking down case law. Learning legal research platforms such as Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis can give you a competitive edge.