Susan Traylor 2013-04-04 07:17:58
Where Can a Lawyer Find Qualified Legal Support Staff? I can hardly wait to tell Arizona lawyers about this. In the 12 years I worked as a practice management advisor for the State Bar of Arizona’s Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP), one of the most frequently asked questions by members of the Bar was, “Where can I find qualified support staff?” Or, even if the lawyer already had a legal secretary or legal assistant the lawyer liked very much, the question was “Can you tell me where I can send my office assistant to get trained in legal procedures or trust account management or billing?” There are legal assistant certificate programs at community colleges and private schools, and paralegal programs at 2-year and 4-year schools to formally train those who want to assist lawyers in the delivery of legal services. And, of course, there are criminal justice and legal services degree programs. Now there is an accredited certificate program in Phoenix for those who want to assist lawyers with the administrative tasks of “the business” of law. It is the Legal Administrative Assistant Program at the Maricopa Skill Center, a division of Gateway Community College, one of the ten Maricopa Community Colleges. Over the years of working in a law office and then advising lawyers on running their practices, I fondly referred to the person in this support position as the “many-hats” person. To be a good many-hats person, they had to be good at lots of things, from basic administrative assistant skills like filing, proper phone etiquette, communication skills, writing, typing, attention to detail, organizational skills, fluency in standard software, how to operate fax machines, copiers, and scanners, all the way to legal-specific skills such as transcription, calendaring, and court procedures, preparing document templates for legal documents, tracking time and expenses, to preparing bills and managing trust accounts, learning legal-specific practice management software to perform these functions and even knowing the ethical minefields such as conflicts, confidentiality, and good client communications. Historically, the “legal secretary” position covered many of these tasks. But with the development of law office technology over the past 20 years, which required advanced software, hardware, Internet and now social media skills, describing this role as “secretary” is not sufficiently comprehensive. Many legal secretaries found themselves having to transcribe using a digital (on computer) transcription machine, or track time using a billing software, or learn software to do calendaring and synchronize the calendar with the lawyer’s smart phone, etc. Enter the Maricopa Skill Center whose model is to survey local businesses to determine what kind of skills and training their employees need in order to compete in today’s market. Phoenix law firms were surveyed and voiced a need for highly trained support staff. What sets the Maricopa Skill Center apart is 1) its student placement assessment and screening. Students who already have excellent administrative assistant skills may begin with the legal portion of the training; 2) its comprehensive, competency-based curricula developed with the assistance of 12 high-performing legal administrative assistants; and 3) its focus on hands-on training which includes computer labs and simulations, electronic court filing training at the state and federal courts, and internship opportunities. Not only was I delighted to learn of the existence of such a program, but now that I am a member of its advisory board, I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful new campus and learn about the program in detail. And, the more I learn, the more I am impressed. I am still studying the 950 page “Using Computers in the Law Office” textbook, which to my pleasant surprise includes detailed discussion on the various types of fee agreements, good billing practices, and trust accounts, functions which are integral to time and billing software used in the modern law firms. (I know lawyers who would like to have the opportunity to learn this.) The program’s driving force is Margaret (Peggy) Shortridge, a family law practitioner, community college adjunct, and now program instructor and coordinator at Maricopa Skill Center. Her passion for blazing this trail, meeting the needs of the city’s law practices by providing quality education and training to the workforce, is immediately discernible. Peggy Shortridge is collaborating with the newly formed Legal Administrative Assistant Advisory Board (made up of a small firm practitioner, a certified document preparer, and office managers and paralegals from high profile law firms, the attorney general’s office, and a city prosecutor’s office) to continue improving the program. The Legal Administrative Assistant program at Maricopa Skill Center is relatively young and still working hard to gain the attention of the Phoenix area legal community. If you are looking for qualified support staff, or training for your current staff, or would like to know more about the program, please call Peggy Shortridge at 602-238-4329.
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