Why We Need More Secretaries

For the last 30 years, there has been a reduction in the number of secretaries in law and other professional services, both in name and in number.  Partly driven by automation and technological changes and partly driven by cultural changes in relation to the role.  In by view, both of these are mistaken if we aim to create efficient and thoughtful legal and professional work. As a counter intuitive point, the use of more secretaries makes both secretaries and lawyers more resistant to automation. 

Technical Automation

One of the biggest, if not the biggest technological change that has led to automation in legal services over the last 100 years was the introduction of the ability to copy and paste and delete text.  The ability to delete and overwrite text began with advanced typewriters, and to copy and paste began with xeroxing and photo-stating; however, these trends really hit their pace with the introduction of the personal computer and its widespread adoption in the 1980s and 1990s.  This meant that editing documents could be done on screen and without resort to dictation and amendment through a typing pool.  That is, rather than have to have someone retype an entire document for one small change, the document could be simply brought up on screen and the text amended, or parts of or the entire document could be copied and pasted into a new document. 

The advent of the personal computer saw the end of the typing pool with efficiency gains across law firms and professional firms that could then do away with support staff and the overheads of having typists and secretaries.  The generation of millennial lawyers (and thereafter) who have grown up with computers and typing for themselves led to an encouragement for lawyers to type and edit documents themselves.  They are encouraged by emails which do not require someone to print out the letter and send it but meant that lawyers could directly correspond from their computers or other devices.  This has led to efficiency gains. It also means that instead of spending time thinking through abstract problems of law, strategy, dealing with clients, advocacy, etc, which are skills to be specialised in time, has to be devoted to a large number of small secretarial tasks that cause distractions and interruptions to thought processes.  The culmination of this is the diversions and disruptions from notifications from email and notifications from messaging services at work. 

A small mental interruption such as an email notification can take the mind away from deep thought and can delay a return to that deep thinking mental state for 30 to 90 minutes.  The result is that for many lawyers who are constantly barraged with notifications and interruptions that they are never able to reach or maintain a “flow state” or clearer states of thought.  Mental clarity is less important if you’re merely working on low-level tasks that do not require creativity, lateral reasoning, or personal engagement.  However, a practice that engages in such lower-level repetitive tasks is highly susceptible to automation.  Contract reviews, discovery, and copy-paste documents from templates are more efficiently done by robots. To the extent that those tasks are not automated now further, automation is forthcoming, and this will exert pressures on profits for the lawyers and the viability of their practices.

Secretaries as a Guard Against Automation

The insight of the importance of secretaries to enable deep thinking came to me when I saw a newspaper article criticising a former Australian high court judge who apparently did not use computers and had all of their emails printed off for them by their secretary and presented in a folder to respond to daily.  This judge is known for (in my view) deep and thoughtful judgments on areas of law that I am familiar with and has a highly respected career.  Having a total absence of interruptions throughout the day meant (in my view) that the judge could focus on deep analysis of material before them and then to turn their mind to responding to correspondence at a set time of their choosing. 

In economic terms, what we are seeing is gains from specialisation and trade.  The lawyer specialises in something they do being their area of law, whether its advocacy, engagement with clients, legal research, or documents.  The secretary specialises in organisation of meetings, replying to correspondence, filing, and preparing documents.  Of course, the application of the secretary’s mind to these tasks naturally makes them better and more focussed and specialised on this.  A lawyer who is trying to organise a file is going to be less efficient at it when they are distracted by meetings with a client or trying to craft a document.  Just because a lawyer could do something seemingly quickly, such as send an invite for a meeting through Outlook, collate a document, or respond to an email, does not mean that they should do those things. 

Besides disrupting entering a flow state for work, each of these tasks has the potential to expand out in time: multiple parties to a meeting might have different availability, formatting on a document might prove problematic and need fixing, and an email might require more care and consideration after reviewing a first draft.  This means that these tasks that in the abstract might take only a minute can end up taking 10 minutes each, which compounded over the day can add up to a significant amount of time doing tasks that are away from a lawyer’s most valuable skill sets.  In addition, for the lawyer to do these tasks themselves is a false economy as the time that they spend could instead be spent doing productive billable time.  The gains from technological automation of these tasks should go to the secretaries who are able to create meeting requests electronically, copy and paste and edit documents, and respond to correspondence by being able to email it rather than print it off and post it. 

In regards to automation of secretaries entirely, I think that the best analogy is to the automation of hairdressers.  It’s theoretically possible to create a robot that automates hairdressers.  It can have a number of pre-set style functions, and the user could select one of these and sit in the chair and pray that the oversized lawn mower around their head doesn’t take off more than is intended.  But realistically, the personal customisation in each hair cut from hair types to head shapes to styles desired that it probably will always be more economically feasible for a skilled hairdresser to craft something that looks good.  To replace a secretary with a machine is the same replacing a hairdresser with a machine: everyone gets buzz cuts.

Cultural Extinction of Secretaries

There have been a number of cultural changes that have lead to an almost eradication of the common usage of the term “secretary.”  Instead, today we have “administrative assistants,” “office managers,” and for organisations that are filling up on the latest buzz words “Chief Support Ninjas.”  One reason for this change over the last 50 years has been the broadening of career opportunities for women, which is, of course, excellent for a multitude of reasons.  But part of the changes have occurred from a perceived lowering of status of secretaries and the desire to mask that by changing the name.  It is this perception about status which I think is in error. 

The simplest way to explain this is by giving an example: consider the prestige of the Queen’s private secretary.  As at the date of writing, the Queen’s private secretary is Sir Edward Young, who had a long career as banking executive and senior political adviser.  The Queen’s private secretary Sir Young is also the Keeper of the Royal Archives and the trustee of the Royal Collection Trust.  Sir Young has direct control of the Press Office, the office for Director for Security Liaison, and the Queen’s Archives.  The Queen’s private secretary is one of the most senior and influential British officials, with key responsibilities in certain constitutional situations.  Being a secretary can be an eminently prestigious position.  Similarly, a company secretary has a number of responsibilities and obligations under the Corporations Act.

The position of a secretary should therefore not be improperly underrated, even in a legal or professional office.  The ability to control some correspondence, meetings, payments and the general organisation of a firm is highly influential and important.  I remember first becoming aware of this as a junior lawyer and discovering the benefits of having a friendly working relationship with the secretary of the partners that I worked for in getting my work attended to and finding time to see them finding information, looking for advice on how to fit in within a complex organisation.

Instead of a simple power dynamic between a lawyer and support staff, the relationship between lawyer and a secretary should be seen more akin to the complex interaction between partners at a dance: one may lead, but their movements are influenced and determined through a complex feedback loop in both parties.  In the modern service environment, we can’t order someone to give their utmost best efforts. It can only be encouraged through mutual respect.

Summary of How to Automate Your Secretary

And in conclusion, the above paragraphs set out how to fully automate the role of secretary in legal and professional services for the purposes of reducing costs in law firms.  To ensure the recording and dispersion of these revolutionary and industry-changing ideas  (and unfortunate loss of job for my own secretary), I have dictated this before I forget it and trust that she will faithfully type this without alteration or change as this article will go to publication without being further reviewed.

(Note from Shirley: don’t tell Adrian, I may have tweaked it a bit.)

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