West Virginia Record

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YOUR LEGAL WRITES: The secret service of administrative assistants

By Kathryn E. Brown | Feb 20, 2008

If the U.S. Department of Labor maintained an endangered species list of professionals on the verge of extinction, secretaries would find themselves on the roster.

While the administrative assistant occupation is expected to be among those fields with the greatest percentage of new jobs, actual employment opportunities have been forecasted to be the best for applicants with information technology and communication skills or degrees. A modern-day legal secretary now takes on responsibilities that used to be reserved for members of management, yet more men and women are choosing the paralegal route. The loss of administrative assistants may be due to a public relations problem – people fear being referred to as "just" a secretary.

According to organizations such as the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), and Legal Secretaries International (LSI), a secretary serves as the best friend to any business, and they should be proud of the invaluable role they play.

During a recent education and professional development conference hosted by the IAAP, secretaries are now required to be a project manager, software trainer, Web site maintainer, online purchaser, data miner, research assistant, meeting planner, travel agent, desktop publisher, writer and editor, and client account coordinator.

With corporations and law firms operating in a global economy, administrative professionals will be expected to assume more duties that involve language translation, cultural studies, business ethics, and technology interfacing.

If an administrative assistant or secretary possesses such understanding in these expanded areas of their job descriptions, employers expect a separate list of competencies that fall under the category of "works and plays well with others".

To be successful in an office environment, secretaries -– particularly those in law -– must practice the art of keeping one's mouth shut. The root work of secretary, secret, has prompted human resource managers to rename job titles to that of "confidential assistant" or "private associate."

Individuals in these positions must treat every matter as extremely confidential, a process of exercising good judgment when analyzing information. Research trends also state that secretaries and assistants must be team players, which require them to identify and adapt to the needs and work styles of others.

To avoid squabbles and personality conflicts that often plague office settings, secretaries are encouraged to learn how to negotiate, fight fairly, and treat others with a professional respect and courtesy that is reminiscent of the 1950s. A dress code of sensible, conservative attire also made the list of secretarial standards, no matter what the industry might be.

Advanced skill sets and demonstrated abilities are paying well these days, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that non-legal secretaries earn as much as $42,000 per year. Executive secretaries in large companies and enterprises collect an average of $57,000 annually, with certifications and degrees in specific areas of business adding more income to their salaries. Within the legal profession, secretaries can expect to enter the market at $25,000 and end their careers at the $50,000 mark, according to Payscale.com.

However, Merriam-Webster's Legal Secretaries Handbook cautions those in the field who are considering changes in the career. The text states that competent and experienced legal secretaries are becoming a rare commodity, yet the need for capable assistants continues to rise year after year. "Employment-ability" seems to be in a secretary's favor, given that most lawyers' assistants can find work in literally any profession, particularly retired secretaries who want to re-enter the workforce after a few years at home.

A secretary is often dubbed as the one person who can make his or her boss's life easy or miserable. Historically, secretaries emerged from the Roman Empire in the 1870s, when prominent political leaders chose the most trustworthy individuals to handle their delicate matters. Men dominated the profession through the early 1900s, until women were hired to manage the paperwork crisis that developed during the Industrial Age. Throughout time, the prominence of secretarial work diminished thanks to equipment that replaced assistants rather than making their tasks simpler.

Despite the personality change in the administrative profession, a man by the name of Harry F. Klemfuss campaigned to bring distinction back to the job by creating National Secretaries' Day. Perhaps Klemfuss' April holiday has taken hold since the name and duration have changed into Administrative Professionals Week.

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a professional writing and editing agency based in Charleston.

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