Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

06.27.13

Legal Eagles

Legal secretaries are finding it tougher to get jobs

And right on the heels of my last post, I come across this Wall Street Journal article on legal secretaries, a profession that has long offered a decent middle class income to women (and a few men) with high school diplomas or associates degrees. Suddenly, that seems to be shrinking:

Steve Bryant is still hunting for permanent work more than four years after he was laid off from his legal secretary job at the New York office of Latham & Watkins LLP, which slashed more than 250 staffers at the height of the recession.

Mr. Bryant has tried to burnish his résumé, obtaining a college degree and a paralegal certificate from Hunter College in New York. Despite roughly 20 job interviews, and a slew of job applications, he has landed only lower-paying work as a temp. He and his wife were leaning on credit cards until her work as an architect picked up in recent years.

"She's keeping us afloat. Thank God for that," said Mr. Bryant, 58 years old.

Mr. Bryant, the article goes on to note, is not alone.  Partly this is shrinkage in the legal profession, but it's also the fact that the job of legal secretary is simply less necessary than it once was.  In the early 1990s, I worked as a clerk in a law office with a bunch of smart, feisty ladies who could type 120 wpm without errors.  They were amazing, and amazingly necessary, because word processors were still relatively primitive, and a bunch of stuff still had to be done on a typewriter. They got salaries that had allowed several to raise three kids on their own, including sending them through college.

These days a computer and a template can do most of the tedious formatting work, and spellcheck and a good proofread will catch the typos.  Some of their jobs have been upskilled (in the late 1990s, when I was working as a technology consultant, a lot of the network administrators I met in law offices were former legal secretaries).  But others are disappearing, as the associates type their own damn briefs and massive document management systems keep the paper flowing.  

Meanwhile, the returns to being able to design legal software are very high.  The industry is shifting towards a more demanding skill base.  Good news for those of us who need legal services, but at least in the short term it's terrible news for a lot of people who need work.