SPEECH NOTES Megan Mahon President Queensland Law Society Legal Secretaries and Personal/Executive Assistants Summit 2007 Brisbane 24 August 2007 Mr Chairman, guests, ladies and gentlemen Thank you for your invitation here today to open this important conference. The legendary American law yer and congresswoman Bella Abzug - who was noted for any number of things including her self-confessed fiery temper, feminist views, radical politics and self-deprecating humour – once remarked that she had begun wearing hats as a young law yer because it helped her establish her professional identity. Before that, she noted, that whenever she was at a meeting, someone would ask her to get the coffee. Of course, this was back in the middle of last century when it was assumed that all law yers were men and all secretaries were women. Later, she would observe as the times and her circumstances changed that all the men on her staff could type. It must have been a sweet triumphant moment for her. The evolving role of what used to be called legal secretaries can be tracked – as so much else of contemporary culture – by how the Americans have acknowledged changing realities. The first Secretaries Day was celebrated there in 1952; the title changed to Professional Secretaries Day in 1981 and then to Administrative Professionals Day in 2000 and, as it happens, this day in the USA is 25 April – Anzac Day – so it could be said that while we celebrate our heroes, they celebrate theirs. Our Secretaries/Administrative Professionals Day is celebrated on 7 May – for what reason I cannot discover and my secretary – sorry, my administrative assistant – didn’t look it up. Earlier this year my friend and colleague Kym Briese decided to bite the bullet and establish our own firm in Toowoomba. We had faith in ourselves and faith in each other and thought that the time was right – even the bank manager was convinced that the time was right. But even with all of this assurance and re-assurance and faith and hope, we would have got exactly nowhere unless we knew that we could attract the best professional administrative and support staff. It is one thing for the principals of a new firm to put their names and reputations on the line but quite another for them to ask potential staff to leave their existing jobs with all of that security to take what amounts to a leap in the dark. Happily, we did get not just highly competent staff but people who are truly members of a team. Briese Mahon Law yers would have run the risk of being still-born without them. In fact, it can be said now that the role played by the support staff team members of a law firm is even more important and more crucial than ever before and that the job description has changed significantly to the extent that it is now a profession all of its own. No longer is it just doing the typing, answering the phone, organising the diary and making the coffee. The demand on law yers to deliver high quality work within tight deadlines means that an increasing burden of work has to be assumed by support staff to the extent that experienced and trusted support staff are required to take on more of a paralegal role especially in smaller firms. Rapidly changing technology is driving a change in the traditional roles of law yer and administrative assistant – for example, how many law yers today would still dictate letters and other documents? The changing nature of the work means the assumption of more administrative work such as file management, time recording, handling automated billing systems, defining and refining organisational structures and relationships, liaison between staff, marketing and public relations, knowledge management, human resources and other responsibilities. It has been said that digital technology will mean that large documents will no longer need to be typed and that the increasing availability of broadband internet will allow firms to outsource transcriptions off-shore. However, technology will never ever replace professional support staff. Nothing can replace loyalty, discretion, trust, client care, initiative, reliability, organisational skills and – even - understanding and sympathy. Administrative staff are the front line – the first point of contact for clients – and nobody, law firms included - get a second chance to make a good first impression. The world’s best law yer can be let down by support staff who are off-handed, unprofessional, casual, dismissive and utterly uninterested. Certainly, it would appear that technology is reducing staff-law yer ratios. I have read that in larger firms the standard is 1:3, 1:4 or even 1:5 while in smaller firms, the ratios of 1:1 and 1:2 still exist. Ideally, a law yer should be there to be a law yer – that is how firms serve their clients, make money and prosper – and the time that they spend on administrative work is time that is not being spent on existing clients or seeking new clients and that can be wasteful for all concerned at the firm. Recently, a director of a major legal recruitment firm was quoted as saying that many law firms were finding it difficult to choose between titles for support staff – be it Personal Assistant, Executive Assistant, Administrative Assistant or Legal Assistant – as the boundaries between them were unclear and constantly changing. Both support staff and their law yer employers are finding it a challenge to devise a title that meets the expectations of both. What is certainly true, however, is that the old term Legal Secretary is dying out with generational change. The baby-boomer generation is retiring or close to retiring and that includes law yers and non-law yer members of a firm. The old tradition of an old-time secretary staying with a partner for years is going the way of the dodo and for older non-law yer support staff that presents a challenge as they must retrain to keep themselves marketable. What was acceptable, adequate and even first-class ten years ago is no longer so. And, of course, as firms often struggle to attract and retain good practitioners, equally they can find it a struggle to attract and retain first-class administrative support. We can hardly expect administrative staff to be shining examples of dedicated loyalty in a firm when they see practitioners coming and going in pursuit of better pay, better conditions and better lifestyles. It has long been the practice in firms to reward practitioners with bonuses and benefits to keep them – but how many firms extend the same principle and practice to support staff? Some do and I believe that this is going to be an increasing trend. Frankly, it is a sellers’ market and realities have to reflect that. One recent survey of support staff by a recruitment firm has given a good indication to employers about how to win and hold staff. The magazine Law yers Weekly only a week ago ran a major story about this very subject, entitled Shoring up of fice suppor t. I quote from it: “One way in which firms can make their terms of employment more attractive to support staff is by offering the same benefits as those available to the fee earners and professional legal staff. In fact, legal support staff at top-tier firms have generally had access to their law yer colleagues for some years now … but mid-tier and – to an even greater extent – small firms have only recently been able to offer the same benefits to their entire staff. The benefits on offer at different firms range all the way from maternity leave down to Friday night drinks. Other benefits include income protection, health programs such as gym membership, yoga classes and massages, legal seminars, free legal advice and financial assistance with degrees and other relevant educational programs.” The article noted that while these sound attractive, it is possible that not all benefits are received in a way that employers would most like. The survey cited showed that only twenty per cent of job seekers surveyed rated additional benefits as ‘very important’ when considering a new position and that staff were more concerned with bigger picture issues such as feeling valued and challenged in their work rather than receiving gimmicks. It seems to me that while it is vital to ensure that support staff are valued, trusted and genuinely made a part of an inclusive firm, simply trying - in effect – to bribe them with bangles and beads is actually insulting and demeaning them. Flexible work hours to allow staff meet parenting responsibilities for example, is a far better incentive than asking then along for a drink in the boardroom on a Friday. One shows respect and concern – the other can be seen as patronising and unnecessary. Now, after all of that you can reasonably ask what the Queensland Law Society is doing to reflect and to respond to these new realities. The fact that this inaugural summit – the first of what we intend will become an annual event – is being held is important. Your employers’ professional association is responding to practitioners who are telling us that we have to make sure that the QLS is an inclusive organisation and we must be if our message to practitioners is that the only way forward is to have an inclusive culture in their firms. We are now actively encouraging administrative support staff to become Associate Members and you can sign up today. Spread the word to your fellow professionals and encourage them to sign up also. We have a regular Legal Support Staff series that is delivered by our Continuing Legal Education Department and we need your input and your feedback to ensure that this series delivers what is needed. Once you are an Associate Member, you will have access to benefits providing professional and commercial benefits not the least of which is easy access to the professional community in which you building your career. Other benefits include free or discounted rates to commercial services provided by the QLS and third party providers including access to heavily discounted QLS Continuing Legal Education seminars and conferences, legal updates and career direction. The networking opportunities alone will be invaluable. Feel free to contact the Society and articulate your needs, explain your requirements and pass on your suggestions and today you can discuss these with QLS staff Gill Richardson or Celeste Baker and, of course, I would be delighted to meet as many of you as possible. Once there was a management style – for want of any other term – which was expressed by US President Lyndon Johnson back in the 1960s when he said, “When things haven’t gone well for you, call in a secretary or a staff man and chew him out. You will sleep better and they will appreciate the attention.” Well, those days are over and good riddance. One final word - my advice to every practitioner is to be very nice to their support staff not just because it is the decent thing to do because it is also the smart thing to do in the short, medium and even long term. Perish the thought of course, but if you ever encounter any law yer who is falling short in the niceness stakes, remind him or her that only recently, a former legal secretary was appointed to the High Court. It is my very great pleasure to declare this summit officially open.