General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter

Why Lawyers Need Wives

By jennifer j. rose

When a feminist writer back in the early seventies wrote "I need a wife . . . ," it was radical. Now, it seems lawyers, male and female, might want to reconsider the idea.

Ladies' Day, the sole day of the year when female law students in some elite law schools were asked to stand and recite, met its demise during the seventies, decade of the leisure suit, Ms. magazine, and the ERA. Soon, it was uncool to ask a secretary to make coffee or spruce up the office. But it was absurd to expect a lawyer to type: Women who typed risked being mistaken for secretaries, and men risked their manhood.

The quaint art of typing slowly grew into word processing. Before long, the siren call of computers lured many a lawyer into keyboarding (note: still not "typing"). Then, lawyers used to face-to-face dictation to legal secretaries trained in ancient and secret languages like Gregg shorthand moved up to Dictaphones, which were supplanted by voice recognition technologies that rendered contacts between lawyer and staff superfluous. Refined programs for document and case management, coupled with lawyers' growing skills at using them, put the role of support staff in further jeopardy-as did a new player in the law office: the paralegal.

Combined with visions of paperless offices and electronic filing, the trend in law seems to be conspiring to make support staff an endangered species. E-mail, FedEx, and electronic banking have nearly eliminated even the need for trips to the post office or deposits made at a bank. Della Street is almost out of a job.

The crossover is ironic: Lawyers adopted the roles previously relegated to support staff, while paralegals and legal assistants took over many of the labor-intensive chores in the lawyer's domain. Little remained for the secretaries.

Meanwhile, corporate America courts employees with daycare centers, dry-cleaning pickup and delivery, personal shoppers, travel arrangements, and even financial counseling. The solo and small firm lawyer, having become competitive and efficient through technology, no longer has the benefit of those services at which the coffee-making secretaries of yore excelled: those involving personal nurturing. Each step forward that technology takes modern practitioners means a step back from having human support needs met. Technology and gadgets may have changed how we work, but they haven't changed who we are.

What lawyers in solo and small firms, male or female, really do need is an old-fashioned wife: a combination office Mommy, nanny, and concierge. The traditional secretary contributed much more than just bringing coffee, greeting clients, filing, and typing; many lawyers forgot just how essential those other roles could be. "The secretary" was the soul and conscience of a lawyer: playing Dutch Uncle, yenta, maitre'd, butler, nagging voice, or devil's advocate; spiffying up the office; harping at trial tactics; assessing clients' moods; shopping for the best deals in office supplies; gatekeeping; and even sewing on the occasional button in the nick of time.

It was-and still is-unglamorous grunt work; but it kept the office-and the lawyer-running. The personal human assistant, even part-time, is as essential to today's law practice as a personal digital assistant.

 

 

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