Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Legal Secretary Talent Becoming Scarce

I found this article particularly interesting because I started out my legal career as a legal secretary to work my way through paralegal school (and gain experience in law offices). Apparently, as the Baby Boomers retire, so do the old-school legal secretaries: the ones that can type 100 words per minute, wrangle a Dictaphone, and know how to format briefs in their sleep.

[A]ny help could be getting even harder to find for law firms looking for legal secretaries.

As the number of Baby Boomers nearing retirement grows, the amount of talent to fill those positions is becoming increasingly scarce, according to some industry professionals.

Cindy Johnson, president of the job placement agency CareerTrac Professional Group in Waukesha, said several clients are facing the retirement of longtime legal secretaries and decisions as to how those positions will be filled in the future.

“There are legal secretaries all the same age, who have been doing this for 20 years and all are going to retire at the same time,” said Johnson, who solely focuses on placement of legal professionals. “In my experience, the market is shrinking for qualified people to replace them.”

Technical Difficulties

Throughout the last decade, the state technical college system has seen a dramatic drop in the number of institutions that carry legal administrator programs as well as the number of students who enroll in those courses.

According to Mike Tokheim, Education Director for Business and Information Technology for the Wisconsin Technical College System Office, students pursing associate degrees as legal administrators decreased by more than half since 1997.

Last year only 100 students registered for the program, compared to 340 a decade ago.

“It’s been a steady decline,” said Tokheim, who added that when he started 25 years ago, almost all of the 16 state technical colleges offered a legal secretary program.

Currently, only three — Blackhawk, Moraine Park and Milwaukee Area Technical Colleges — offer a two-year associate degree for legal administrative professionals.

According to a research assistant at MATC, the college currently has 16 students enrolled in the program, a slight increase from past years, but much smaller than the 128 students participating in the paralegal program.

Bryant & Stratton Technical College, which has two campuses in Wisconsin, transitioned out of its legal secretary program into a paralegal program in 2003.

“We switched over because paralegal is a more prestigious title and our research showed that more students would be interested in that kind of a degree,” said academic program director Amy Frohwirth.

Johnson said there is also a stigma still associated with the legal secretary job, which could partially explain the lack of college courses in the state.

“People going to college don’t think there is any future in it and yet it’s a well-paid profession,” said Johnson, who noted that her agency places entry level legal secretaries with no experience at an average starting salary of $34,000.

Tokheim conceded that the term secretary became a turn-off for prospective students, which is why the system renamed its program in 2004. But after a one-year jump in enrollment, numbers have continued to slide.

Experience or Youth?

One of the issues Johnson and others said firms are wrestling with is whether to transition to a veteran legal professional or train a recent college graduate.

Sandy A. McGee, COO of the Schroeder Group, S.C., Attorneys at Law, in Waukesha said that there is a definite challenge in finding quality among the quantity of available candidates.

McGee said smaller firms, like hers, will typically want someone who can be an easy hire and hit the ground running.

“When we have an open position, we throw an ad in the paper, or use an agency to fill it, but my sense is they are struggling with people as well,” said McGee.

Johnson admitted that the roster of qualified employees has shrunk over the years and experience does not always come with age.

“I take a look at my pool of candidates and they are almost all 40 and over,” said Johnson. “That doesn’t necessarily make them the best candidates for what our firms are looking for.”

She said she recently placed a woman who graduated with honors from the Rockford Business College in Illinois at a Wisconsin firm willing to train a candidate with long-term potential.

“She only had six month’s experience and none in Wisconsin, but was hired almost on the spot because of her grades,” said Johnson.

Habush Habush & Rottier, S.C., recently promoted within to retain talent, according to firm administrator Jennifer Passig. A receptionist working in the firm’s Waukesha office advanced to a legal assistant position in the medical malpractice division.

“She had some experience with the firm, but not necessarily as a legal professional,” said Passig. “We were willing to train her and it’s worked out well.”

While Habush, a client of Johnson’s, has not experienced a gap in quality legal professional help, Passig said the firm is taking proactive steps to develop fresh hires for after veteran legal professionals retire.

“Some of our more senior legal assistants have been taking a newer person, who doesn’t have a lot of experience, under their wing,” said Passig. “It’s been an effective tool.”

In rare instances, firms may benefit from a family history in the profession.

Kim Starr, vice president of the legal division at Madison staffing firm Drake and Company, said she has been in the business so long, that she is placing the daughters of people she placed 20 years ago.

(Source: Wisconsin Law Journal)

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