For the past 19 years, I’ve paid for my “red bean dreams” with my day job as a legal secretary – my mild-mannered alter ego, if you will. The longer I stay in this profession, the more I realize how ill-prepared each new crop of secretaries is. Often this is just a springboard to the next thing, which is fair. Most of the people in my peer group and beyond did not say “I want to be a secretary when I grow up,” myself included. But whether you’re a secretary for the long haul, or just until your dreams (red bean or otherwise) come through, I’m here to make you a better legal secretary, admin assistant, practice assistant, or whatever the your firm calls you.
While each attorney is different, one thing is constant: at least once you will have to do battle with the document from hell. Whether it is because you are following up on the work of a secretary who didn’t care, your attorney decided “I’ll just type it myself,” or you are referring back to an old document that you created when you were less experienced, you’re gonna have a bad time. You might also contend with the idiosyncrasies of your attorney, the client, the court, or some unholy alliance of the three. Here are a few things will aid you in handling any document, hellish or otherwise:
Formatting Requirements: Knowing the formatting requirements for documents you will send out is typically reserved for pleadings you file with the courts, but important because each court is different. Some courts want 14 pt type, many don’t want the paragraphs justified, and occasionally they will have odd margin requirements for the first page. You must know and adhere to these requirements because not doing so can get your pleading kicked back. Appellate courts most often have the most stringent requirements, and it is important to know them because attorneys are violently allergic to submitting appellate court filings with time to spare.
Styles: Establishing styles at the beginning of each document will save you a multitude of headaches. Your font size, paragraph spacing, justification, tabs, numbering, and a host of other formatting options can be universally applied by using styles. That way, if for some reason your document goes through other hands and the formatting is altered, you reapply the style and all is right with the world. It also gives the document a more polished look if a client has to review the document and not just a pdf or hard copy. It is worth mentioning that using styles for numbered paragraphs is the only way to go. If you manually number paragraphs, particularly on large documents, I cannot guarantee that I will not show up at your next happy hour and personally visit violence upon you. It is a waste of time and a nightmare if, in revisions, your attorney decides to add a list item after Number 4 in a manually numbered list of 38.
Punctuation, Spelling, and Grammar: Every time I get a document where the punctuation is outside of the quotation marks, my edges move back 2 cm. Virtually every attorney or client has a punctuation, spelling, or grammar issue that is his or her Achilles heel. While some legalese sounds awkward, sometimes it’s just a typo or a grammatical violation. If you see a word that just sounds off, don’t be afraid to ask. Attorneys are still people and sometimes their local (erroneous) vernacular makes its way to a document. Despite what you hear about attorneys and their egos, they are concerned with sounding unintelligent to opposing counsel, and appreciate your attention to detail. When a violation is glaring, correct it and mention it to the attorney. If it is questionable, find a site that you trust to answer your question. My go-to site is GrammarBook.com. When you see that a change is necessary, make a note on a post-it or tell your attorney directly, then back it up with, “I’ve always done it this way because…” or “I checked with Grammar Book and the rule is [this].”
Consistency: Double spaces after periods are the eight-track of typesetting. The Oxford comma is your salvation. However, if your attorney insists on cleaving your soul in twain by not being on the right side of this grey area, be certain the document is consistent via proofreading. Documents go through multiple people before it is finalized. It’s your job to make sure that it does not look that way via formatting. Typically, attorneys don’t care how the sausage is made; they just want it done correctly.
Document Corruption: If every time you hit the return key, it screws up something else and now you’ve considered setting the building on fire, you might have a corrupted document. Your best bet is to re-save your document, strip the formatting, and reapply styles as need be. Which you’ve already done, because I told you to and you listened to me because you’re amazing and super smart! Newer secretaries may consider explaining any delays caused by corruption to their attorneys. More experienced secretaries (like me) typically just shriek like banshees while breathing threat and murder, and our attorneys get the gist. Larger firms offer the option of delegating tasks like this to a word processing department, which I highly recommend.
Next week’s discussion topic will be “for haggard secretaries who considered prioritizing their workload when their attorney thinks they are the rainbow.” The title is a work in progress. I’ll cover how to decide who’s work get done when (and give young attorneys tips for getting their work to the top of the pile), and how to make the best use of your word processing department.
If you have a topic that you’d like me to cover, or have a question that you’d like addressed in my monthly Q&A post, email me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you!
 I will typically use the term secretary in this series as a tribute to Charlie, one of the nicest partners I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. At his retirement reception, he explained that his preference for the term secretary is because it is rooted in a word that, roughly translated, means “to whom much is entrusted.” He elaborated that no other new-fangled term would convey how invaluable such trust has been to his success.