Sally Jarvis, PLS

             I’ve heard and read a lot recently about respect for secretaries. Some complain that we don’t get enough respect; others say that things are improving, our jobs are changing, and that secretaries get much more respect than in the past.

Personally, I don’t get it.  I have been a legal secretary for more than 30 years. During that time I have held a variety of positions, at firms of every size, and I have always felt respected. Even when I worked for a temporary agency, I felt I provided a valuable service that was appreciated by attorneys, administrators, and others with whom I came in contact. Often not much is expected of temps (a mistake in my opinion) so I found that my employers were often pleasantly surprised. 

Has our job changed over the years? Certainly, there have been some changes brought about by technology. We no longer use carbon paper, and our computers have made it a breeze to correct errors and produce perfect-looking documents. It has made the attorneys more prone to editing for precisely the right phrase or word, and I’m sure it has resulted in better written documents. But these changes are more indicative of how we perform our duties rather than what those duties are. As long as I can remember—long before anyone ever thought of the term “paralegal”—I carried out assignments which today might be considered paralegal duties, being careful not to cross the fine line into the attorney’s duties. Still, it was always my job to do everything I was capable of to assist the attorney, to give the attorney more time to do those things requiring the knowledge and analytical skills of an attorney. Often just getting a draft started was help enough. I could do the skeleton, and the attorney could ensure that everything needed from a legal standpoint was included, and that all information was accurate. I could help by reviewing the mail and drafting responses to routine things, which would then be reviewed by the attorney and approved or corrected. In those instances where I was plugged into my transcriber, I listened to what was being said. I tried to absorb the information, to listen for possible errors and call them to the attention of the attorney, and most of all, I learned the meaning of numerous legal terms and phrases so that in the future I could use and spell them correctly.

I do not believe that I am that different from many, many legal secretaries. The duties described above are carried out every day, and have been for years, by dedicated legal secretaries. On the other hand, some seem to think a secretary’s duties are merely to do exactly as told—not to think at all. Most of us are paid fairly good salaries considering our education and training. I believe those salaries call for us to do whatever is necessary to assist an attorney—that’s really what a legal secretary is—a confidential assistant. Yes, sometimes, it even means the most dreaded chore in all of secretarydom, getting a cup of coffee. I fail to see how getting a cup of coffee for our boss or a client in any way diminishes us as persons. In my opinion the person who deserves no respect is the one who thinks he/she is too good for such menial tasks.

We must always be mindful not to gossip about the things we learn in our positions of trust. We must demonstrate to the attorneys that we are trustworthy professionals. We can make sure that we keep up to date by taking seminars and reading professional journals. We can take certification examinations to demonstrate our skills and abilities.

I can’t think of any position where a person is automatically respected because of the position.  That was formerly true of the office of President of the United States, but recent events have caused many people to lose respect even for that high office, unless it is deserved by the office holder.  Why should legal secretaries be any different?  The position itself deserves neither respect nor disrespect.

Perhaps we need to look into our own attitudes.  Do we believe we deserve respect? In short, we can command, and yes sometimes even demand, respect. No, our jobs are not the same as an attorney’s, but that does not mean we are any less professional. I think it is time we stopped the Rodney Dangerfield routine about “getting no respect.” Instead, to paraphrase an old TV commercial, I think we should get respect the old fashioned way—EARN IT.

Sally Jarvis is a legal secretary in the Litigation Department of the Washington, D.C., office of Winston & Strawn and is Director of Marketing for Legal Secretaries International Inc.