I have a theory. I have many theories, actually, but one of them involves the disappearing job classification of legal secretary.
I have been practicing law for quite a number of years, most of that time in small law firms. And in that time I have been exposed to many legal secretaries. Which is, I suppose, an obsolete term in today’s world. Legal Assistant is probably a more modern job description for a position that involves a lot more than it used to, but I think it lacks the precision of the older description from the time when it was common. There can be all kinds of assistants, ranging from paralegals to junior lawyers to classical secretaries. And I would also suppose that the classic secretary has become largely extinct in today’s technological world.
The classical secretary would take dictation and present a crisply typed document to my physical wooden in-box. That person (I am tempted to say “she” but will avoid the urge because it wasn’t always the case) would manage my calendar, would catch my typos and misspellings and was invaluable in teaching a fresh new attorney all about the nuts and bolts of legal pleadings and letters. Alright, I did not dictate in person but onto a cassette tape, but you get the idea.
But back to my theory: The many career options that have opened for women over the past, say, fifty years or so have been a boon for both the industries where they have taken root and for the women who have entered those fields. There has been a cost, however, that has been largely born by three fields: teaching, nursing, and secretarial.
In my mother’s era those three fields were really the only ones that were truly open to an intelligent, hard-working woman who wanted or needed a job – at least the only fields open to any significant numbers of applicants. I make this generalization partly because I saw it in action, having grown up in a family of nurses, ranging from my grandmother who finished her nursing education in the late 1920s and her three daughters who did the same in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The nurses of that era that I came to know were all, without exception, smart and hard-working ladies. The women of that era that I later came in contact with who were either teachers or secretaries were the same.
This is in no way to say that those fields can boast of nobody of similar caliber today, not in the least. There are many intelligent and dedicated people in those jobs. However, the female physician, engineer or business executive of today’s world would almost certainly have been a nurse, a teacher or a secretary in 1950.
Where is all this going? It is the setup for some of the less successful experience I have had with support staff in my career. Perhaps another time I will be hit with the urge to wax eloquently about the fabulous individuals who were the best assistants I have ever had. I can immediately think of several. But today is not that day.
When I first started my career, I was on the bottom of the office ladder and, as such, got the secretary that occupied that position in her parallel track. The senior partner of my first office was adamant that it was impossible to hire a good legal secretary, you have to make one yourself by hiring an intelligent person who had the ability to think and who knew spelling and grammar. As time went on, that person became harder and harder to find.
Early on there was a very attractive young lady, newly married, who wore a stunning succession of attractive outfits to work every day. Lisa’s other skills were less evident. I recall dictating a letter which finished with “I look forward to the opportunity to meet with you.” When the typed letter came back for signature, I was fortunate to catch that she had substituted “meet” with “meat”. That could have been awkward. And is the kind of thing that is virtually un-fixable.
There was another young woman who was an absolute whiz on the keyboard. Desiree’s fingers moved like lightning, and while I am a pretty good typist, I could never hope to type that quickly. What’s more, her accuracy was amazingly good as well. Her physical reflexes were so fast that she had to be an absolute whiz at videogames. So what was the problem?
In the age of the computer mouse and multiple programs to use, her turbocharged reflexes led to her clicking on dialog boxes before her mind could process what the choices actually were. This might have been the key to winning in Super Smash Brothers, but in my office it led to multiple near-disasters when wrong choices were made by reflex rather than by thought.
Try as I might, I could never get her to slow down. I was saved the heartache of letting her go (she really was a nice person) when she went into a sort of freakout after 9/11, expecting that living in a city was the surest way to certain death in the age of terrorism. She quit to move to the sparsely populated west.
Abby should have been our best hire of an experienced classic legal secretary ever. She had worked for several years by a firm that was closing. A contact there passed her name to us and we snapped her up – and for no little amount of money. The problem was that she was a tough combination of manipulative and evil.
Our other staffer was the sweetest, quietest person you would ever want to meet and had been a delight for the year or two she had worked for us. Until Abby got the desk next to her. Abby proceeded to maneuver her co-worker into losing her temper and looking like the cause of every bit of friction and trouble that resulted. The situation resolved when Abby sent me an email giving me her two weeks notice. I took advantage of the opportunity to send her home about fifteen minutes later (ignoring her insinuations that I was doing this to cheat her out of the pay she had coming.) The tune Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead was playing in my mind as the door closed behind her.
She got her revenge as she spent the next several years trying to file unemployment claims against us. Each time I would send them her resignation email and the matter would go quiet again for awhile. I think she gave up after six or seven times.
Then there was the lady who seemed to do a decent job but who had a genetic disposition to bad decisions. Gloria’s personal life was a perpetual disaster and you could almost predict in advance what she would do in any given situation – the wrong thing.
This person was tasked with generating bills for the firm. This was a commercial billing software system and each of the attorneys would enter our time and her job was to run the bills at the end of the month. Yes, it was our fault for putting her there, but, well, . . . . She seemed to do ok (with an above-average amount of guidance) until That Day. On That Day she asked me why she couldn’t find the last bill on a file. As I looked into it I saw that there was not a single prior bill in the system for any file at all. There should have been several years’ worth.
One screen in our system contained links to prior bills. She became dissatisfied with the cluttered look of the screen and took it upon herself to clear it. And in the process erased every bill that had ever been run on any case in the office since the day we had cut open the plastic wrapping on the software box. There was an incredible amount of effort expended to re-bill every file for every month of every year. Someone else’s effort, of course.
I should note that I have changed the name of each person mentioned here. These were all nice people (well, with one exception) and I have no desire to cause difficulties for any of them. I hope each was able to find a job better suited to her talents. And perhaps some of them have written about the jerk lawyers they have had to work for.
And in the defense of the field generally, I was in small offices that were not in a position to meet the pay and benefits of the big firms or corporate law departments. But I must say that as time passed it became harder and harder to find someone who could type, who knew spelling and grammar and who could combine a competent work ethic and a pleasant personality. Well not harder really – it is just that most of them were the women representing my opponents in the courtroom, managing my bank branch or selling medical supplies to my doctor.
To be clear, I would say that the world is a much better place with so much more talent dispersed all through the economy rather than close to half of it forced into a small number of “women-friendly” fields. Everyone should have the freedom to go after a rewarding career that is his or her choice rather than having to choose from a restricted menu purely because of who you happen to be.
But for those of us who worked closely with one of the old-time categories of “girl jobs”, I learned very early how spoiled earlier generations of lawyers had been.
Opening Photo: Crop of a 1947 Advertisement from the Dictaphone Corporation. The entire ad is displayed subsequently in its entirety.
Raymond Loewy Associates, 488 Madison Ave., New York City. Mr. Loewy at window and secretary taking dictation – photo in the public domain
February, 1943 photo entitled A government secretary in the United States Office of Emergency Management (OEM) cleaning her typewriter, In the public domain via Wikimedia Commons (Library of Congress digital ID fsa.8d14062)