General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter

Solo, Vol. 5, No2.
Winter 1998
© American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

The Day Della Street Stayed Home

BY JENNIFER J. ROSE

jennifer j. rose is a lawyer-writer now living in Mexico. She reads her e-mail at jenniferrose@abanet.org.

Good secretaries are harder to find (and keep) than clients, and sometimes, spouses. Not a mere receptionist, typist, and filing clerk, a good secretary is the first point of contact with a lawyer's office, the lawyer's alter ego, right arm, custodian, den mother, rabbi and guardian angel. Perry Mason would've been lost with Della Street. Could you manage if your secretary didn't show up tomorrow morning?

How many times have you heard "My secretary's been sick, so we can't get the work out?" More often that not this remark resounds from lawyers who proudly hail from the School of Lawyers Who Don't Type. The best lawyer in the world is crippled if he or she can't find a client's file, retrieve and print data from the secretary's computer, crank out a simple letter or pleading, and navigate the bookkeeping system to find out which bills have been paid and which are overdue. The days of deciphering a steno pad scribbled in the hieroglyphics of Gregg may be history, but the same technology which streamlined the practice by shifting document preparation from lawyers to support staff creates new conundrums for the technologically naïve.

Several times each year spend a few hours learning your secretary's system.You may never become as adept or efficient as your staff, but at least you'll be able to pinch-hit. And your staff will develop new respect for you.

How much authority do you delegate to your secretary? Does your secretary depend upon you for basic instructions, or could your support staff run your practice quite effectively without your interference? Are you merely a decorative object festooned with the legitimacy of a license to practice?

Drawing upon skills that never entered Katie Gibbs' wildest dreams, many solos' secretaries have a close relationship to clients, prepare pleadings and do other paralegal chores, practicing a good deal of law without a license. You may not know just how much law your secretary practices until it's too late.

Does your secretary really understand what "attorney-client relationship" and "client confidentiality" mean? The casual introduction to those concepts when you hired the secretary can easily lapse into lip service with time and tempting circumstances. Reinforce the concept. Your staff needs continuing refresher courses just as much as you require continuing legal education to keep those synapses wired to concepts, old and new. Renewing these "soft" skills is more important than upgrading your computer's word processing program.

Lawyers are usually the last to know about the breach.Test your staff by asking a close friend, relative or even another attorney, whose voice will not be recognized, to pose as a potential client. The mystery shopper should call your office, when you know you will be gone, with a script designed to elicit legal advice or client confidences from the secretary, and then report to you. Share with your staff what you learn from the mystery shopper.

Now, where is Della Street?

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