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Features - Secretaries & Legal Research - To Train or Not to Train

By Karen Hawkinson, Published on June 24, 1997
(Archived July 22, 1997)


Karen Hawkinson received her MLIS from Berkeley in 1995. She worked at McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen in San Francisco for 1 1/2 years, then at LA County Law Library for 2 years, and is currently the assistant librarian at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro in Century City, where she created and maintain the library's internal homepage. She just accepted an job offer as associate librarian at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in San Francisco.
The days when secretaries only answered phones and typed letters are over. New technologies continue to transform the ways all law firm personnel do their jobs. Secretaries today may find themselves with the tools, abilities, and desire to expand their skills and responsibilities. Attorneys may view online cite checking or docket pulls as another computer application easily and appropriately done by competent secretaries. In an increasing number of firms, desktop access to electronic information and user-friendly interfaces are opening the door to resources that have traditionally been the domain of librarians.

Many basic legal research and ready-reference tasks previously performed by library staff in the library can be accomplished by trained secretaries at their workstations, using the internet, networked CD-ROMs, and online databases. Martindale-Hubbell and directories on the internet provide quick answers to common requests for attorney backgrounds or contact information. Electronic databases and windows software can make cite checking, pulling bankruptcy dockets by case number, cases by citation or corporate records by business name, fairly straightforward. Some legal secretarial programs provide training in the use of case reporters and digests, annotated codes, and online services, so secretaries may come to the job already knowing some of the fundamentals of legal research.

The response of information professionals to secretaries performing elementary research varies from enthusiastic endorsement to wary skepticism, and generated some heated discussion on the law-lib listserv in late February. Participants debated questions of accountability and quality in the provision of information within the firm or company. Other posters defended the capabilities of any trained individual to do basic research. Some emphasized the necessity for internal motivation from secretaries and commitment to training from management. Many of law-lib's lurking librarians have yet to deal with issue: their firm's secretaries are too busy doing their own work to add other duties, their libraries are adequately staffed to handle all research requests, or firm policy dictates against secretaries doing research. However, an increasing number of librarians face eager and capable secretaries, attorneys who insist on delegating research to their secretaries, or firm policies that explicitly encourage expansion of staff skills.

The most limited approach to this convergence is to establish strict boundaries for secretarial research -- Martindale Hubbell or court directory lookups for instance -- and discourage any other research activity. Advocates of this position emphasize that seemingly simple and straightforward tasks can easily become unexpectedly complicated, and those without a background in legal bibliography or experience in refining reference requests can provide incomplete or inaccurate information as a result. One librarian who takes this view faces an overstaffed secretarial pool and attorneys who use library research as a reward to keep good secretaries. She points out that "too many things can happen" during even basic research, and secretaries may not be familiar enough with resources to know that they need to ask attorneys more questions. Without time or staff to teach and monitor secretaries, librarians who argue for minimal secretarial research attempt to insure quality information service by limiting access to trained professionals.

The response of information professionals to secretaries performing elementary research varies from enthusiastic endorsement to wary skepticism...
Librarians report favorable results if the secretaries are motivated to learn, have the support of their attorneys, and can frequently exercise their research skills. A more prevalent approach emphasizes training secretaries on a case by case basis. In this context, training is not systematic, and there is no formal policy encouraging or discouraging secretarial research. Librarians, not vendors, are frequently the trainers. Individuals may get instruction in practice-specific tasks, such as pulling bankruptcy dockets off Pacer or Courtlink, or trademarks by registration numbers. Retrieving corporate records and cases by citation are other common projects. Librarians report favorable results if the secretaries are motivated to learn, have the support of their attorneys, and can frequently exercise their research skills. Problems easily arise if these conditions are absent. Training also doesn't work if the secretary already has a full plate or is reluctant to seek help.

Elinor Martin, librarian at Kaye Scholer in Century City, encourages secretaries to use library resources and provides training on Lexis, the internet and print materials. Trained secretaries become one more person capable of getting needed information to their attorneys, she says. Her office's "open and dynamic" firm culture allows room for more democratic access to resources. Boundaries are few: online research must be billed, and trained secretaries retrieve cases, corporate records, and similar easily identifiable documents. In practice, few secretaries use the online services due to a simple lack of time. Without regular usage, skills get rusty and library staff eventually field basic questions again. On the other hand, Elinor views some kinds of internet research as most effectively done by secretaries, such as downloading SEC digests. Daily personalized topical news services may be another source of information most conveniently diseminated to their attorneys by secretaries. Expanding desktop internet access offers a real opportunity for motivated secretaries to provide a valuable service to their attorneys.

Alice McKenzie, librarian at the San Francisco office of Brobeck, Harrison, also cites lack of time as the main factor limiting secretarial research. Some secretaries expressed an interest in basic research, Alice says, so the library responded by offering staff and vendor instruction. Currently, the Westlaw and Lexis reps offer training sessions twice yearly -- attendance doesn't warrant more frequent programs -- on pulling cases, cite checking and retrieving public records. Secretaries are too busy to do much more than verify and look-up information, and their awareness of the price of online research contributes to limited use. They access the services with their attorney's userids, allowing for attorney review of costs. Alice points out that while the firm has no official policy regarding secretarial research, library policy holds that resources are to be used. She advises, "Trust capable, motivated people to help their attorneys."

Exploitation of firm resources is the basis for formal secretarial training programs at Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro in San Francisco and at Morrison & Foerster offices in northern and southern California. Administration initiated the program, says Nancy Green, Computer Services librarian at Pillsbury, as part of a long-term project to upgrade technology skills. Morrison has a similar mission, to take advantage of its technology investment, according to their librarian, Theresa Oppedal. The firm has a "career matrix" based on skill levels, and "the more secretaries can increase their technology skills, the better suited they are for advancement."

"Trust capable, motivated people to help their attorneys." says Alice McKenzie

Links

Martindale-Hubbell

Switchboard

The Academy of Court Reporting - Legal Secretary Programs

SEC News Digests

Both firms teach secretaries to use Lexis to retrieve Secretary of State records, Martindale-Hubbell listings, and cases by citation. Pillsbury's pilot project, using a group of ten corporate secretaries, also covers no-action letters and basic news searching. Intellectual property secretaries are the next group slated for training. Lee Nemchek, Morrison's Los Angeles librarian, posted to the law-lib discussion on this topic that her plans for Intermediate Lexis will cover the use of citation services, basic news searching, and retrieving cases by name. Library staff conduct the training at Pillsbury, and have created workbooks and reference guides to assist the trainees who attend the weekly one-hour, six-week program. Reps come in at Morrison's San Francisco office for hourly training sessions and librarians provide assistance as needed.

The programs are well received by all at both firms. Lee writes, "This training program has worked really well so far, has not created any problems for the library, is really good for secretary morale and is really good PR for the library." Nancy agrees, and says the program "is an opportunity for the library to take a leadership role as much as it is an opportunity for the secretaries involved to upgrade their skills."

There are many factors that make training secretaries to do beginning legal research difficult. In most law offices, secretaries are just too busy to add basic research to their duties. Librarians may also not have time to add training another group to the tasks they juggle. Firm culture or policy can be another deterrent. Insuring quality information service remains a legitimate concern for professionals. This concern may grow as more information becomes accessible through support staff desktops. Yet many librarians that work with trained secretaries give positive reports of the experience.

Their success stories begin and end with committed, motivated secretaries. "These are smart people," Nancy notes, "interested in upgrading their skills and providing top service and support to their attorneys." Librarians involved in training secretaries emphasize the importance of collaboration and cooperation. Ask them what they need to know how to do to become more effective partners with their attorneys. Listen to and act on their responses. Monitor their research and let them know assistance is available from library staff, vendor reps and customer service. They can be a valuable asset in effective information management.