Legal secretaries in short supply
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They might not have the fancy degrees, academic honors or journal publications that usually impress law firms, but there's nobody more sought after right now than legal secretaries.
"There really is a true supply problem," said Steve Ferber, director of human resources at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. "We've had trouble even filling an internship program."
Legal secretaries handle traditional support roles for lawyers, answering the phone, typing letters and setting up meetings. Decades ago, it was a coveted position for a working woman, often thought of as reserved for the cream of the crop of secretarial schools.
Now women have thousands of other career options. And as baby boomer legal secretaries are starting to retire, younger ones aren't coming in to replace them.
"It's a matter of less people deciding to enter the administrative profession purposefully looking for a support staff role," said Maura Mann, a Boston-based regional manager of training and development for the Robert Half Legal staffing company. "Legal secretaries, probably over and above any other position we place for in the legal field, are in the most demand right now."
Part of the problem comes from competition within the legal profession. Many people who might have become legal secretaries in the past now choose to become paralegals, a field that was in its infancy in the 1960s and '70s.
Although the job descriptions are different -- paralegals have more legal expertise and often work on managing and coding documents -- the time required to get a degree or certificate is similar. Starting paralegal pay is slightly higher, and many perceive a paralegal job as more prestigious.
His firm has had no difficulty staffing paralegal positions, Mr. Ferber said, noting that the term paralegal might sound better than legal secretary. "We're probably part of our own problem," he said. "We probably need to change the name of 'secretary.' "
"It doesn't sound glamorous," said Toni Robinson, co-director of the Allegheny County Bar Association Legal Placement Service, of the "legal secretary" term. "But it has always been a career for a very bright person."
Finding legal secretaries hasn't been as hard this year as it was a year ago, Ms. Robinson said, but that's because there have been fewer vacancies, not more candidates.
Year to year, many firms are shrinking the number of legal secretaries they employ, both because they are harder to find and because lawyers don't require the same level of support they used to. Fresh law school graduates are accustomed to typing their own documents and sending their own e-mail, and many have never heard of a Dictaphone, much less asked a secretary to use one.
In some ways, increased familiarity with technology has made law firms more efficient. While legal secretaries used to work with one or two lawyers, "maybe the true legal secretary now works for five or six or seven people," Mr. Ferber said. Law firms also have experimented with floater pools of legal secretaries or combined some legal secretary and paralegal duties.
But even the fewer positions are hard to fill.
Part of the problem, Ms. Robinson said, is that only a handful of schools now offer legal secretary training, mainly for-profit schools such as the Everest Institute, formerly Duff's Business Institute, and the Bradford School. The Community College of Allegheny County used to have a certificate program, but dropped it in 2005 because of low enrollment.
"The real issue is where do they develop new legal secretaries," Mr. Ferber said. "There aren't new legal secretaries coming into the profession. There used to be trade schools and business schools, but those programs are very, very minimal."
To fill positions for legal secretaries, there is some poaching that goes on. The best situation, Mr. Ferber said, is when an experienced legal secretary moves into the region. "It's like we have something new on the vine," he said, "and we can't wait to pick it."
To compensate for the shortages, salaries of legal secretaries have increased in recent years. In Pittsburgh, a new legal secretary might start in the upper $20,000-a-year range, but experienced secretaries can earn more than $60,000 -- more if they work overtime.
And the shortages might not be limited to legal secretaries. Some industry watchers report decreased interest in the secretarial field as a whole, with high school or community college graduates electing to pursue more specialized work. CCAC also discontinued a program in 2005 for general administrative office professionals.
When Vince Patrignani started a Pittsburgh franchise of the Express Personnel staffing company in 2005, he was surprised to find clerical positions to be some of the hardest to fill.
A former corporate executive, he remembers secretaries being expected to type 75 to 90 words a minute. "Now, it's 50 words per minute," he said. "From what I see in most of the educational facilities, they don't have that program and there's no natural place in the high school system to deliver some of those clerical skills."
First Published January 17, 2007 12:00 am