TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Suzanne Craig Robertson on Dec 1, 2015

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2005

Journal Name: January 2005 - Vol. 41, No. 1

Other Things are Funny to Read 40 Years Later

Download a PDF of this article

Download a PDF of this article.

The earliest column, besides the president’s, was called “Practicing Your Profession,” written by Executive Director Billie Bethel. It offered practical advice for running a law office and no doubt was a great help to the lawyers and law office personnel of the 1960s. Some subjects covered are still true today, even with the vast changes in technology available to the law office.

Some of the advice, however, helps us recall just how much the office environment has changed. (And of course all the lawyers and clients are “he” and the support staffers are “she.”)

That Timeless Telephone

“The Telephone: Friend or Foe?” is the first column in the first issue. The short answer is it could be either one, depending on how you deal with your calls. It’s a “you be nice to your phone and it will be nice to you” proposition, and most of the advice given is still applicable, even though these days your phone may have 12 lines, voice mail, caller ID and valet parking. And take care in selecting your receptionist: “You should seek a girl with a clear, pleasant, well-modulated voice, good enunciation and diction and a friendly, outgoing personality.”

Some Upgrades Have Been Made

“Don’t Let That Date Slip By!” in May 1965 admonishes lawyers to establish an Office Tickler System “to serve as a reminder to you of matters which require your attention.” Here’s what you need to do: “The Tickler System file should be placed in the control of a reliable secretary, bookkeeper or file clerk. This person should have assigned two daily tasks in respect to the system. The last task of the day for the designated person should consist of picking up information cards for the tickler file from each lawyer’s desk and filing them in proper chronological sequence. The first task each morning must be the checking of the Tickler File and the distribution of the cards coming up for that day.”

It goes on to recommend 3x5 cards and index card drawers. “The file clerk should also prepare a docket sheet for the office each Friday for the following week. A sufficient number of copies should be made for each lawyer and his secretary to have one. Thusly, the entire firm has information as to the court activities of each lawyer.”

Speaking of 3x5 cards, in 1987 when I walked through the doors of the TBA for the first time, the membership records — probably about 6,000 of them — were kept in a big metal box called the Cardex and each member had a card, filed alphabetically. It was soon after that time that the TBA hooked up a computer and started using member records from an electronic database.

The Office Tickler System of 1965 sounds like the computer program iCal, which we use here at the TBA to keep track of where everyone is supposed to be. In describing the card system to a young lawyer recently, he told me this: “I'm blessed with a great assistant who keeps up with my deadlines via some type of computer calendar. I just get daily reminders (printed) of upcoming deadlines. So I guess the tickler system you described is really what I use today.” So things some places are not so different from the way they used to be.

Another lawyer told me that lawyers in his firm input the time themselves sometimes and sometimes jot it down for a secretary to enter into the system.

Time Was Money Back Then, Too

The 1966 Economic Survey indicated that lawyers who kept up with their billable time “always” made an annual median income of $22,000 (East Tennessee), $18,500 (Middle) and $19,600 (West). Those who never kept time records reported a salary of $13,000, $14,200 and $15,500, respectively. So in November 1966 when Practicing Your Profession covered keeping up with billable hours, it had some legs to stand on.

“Mark Time! Forward March!!” is the November 1966 installment of the column, dealing with billing time sheets. See the figures on these pages for a suggested way to keep your time. But, the article warns, “before you select a system of time records make up your mind that you will keep COMPLETE and ACCURATE records. To keep time ‘sometimes’ is not enough!”

This sounds like the precursor to software programs like TimeSlips or OMEGA, which divides the attorney’s day into six-minute increments and integrates with accounting and case management systems. Using John Doe’s time sheet it looks like he has six and a half hours to bill that day. If he does the same thing five days a week, he’ll have 32.5 hours to bill that week. Sources tell me that’s barely enough these days to keep you employed. It’s possible that 30- minute coffee break Mr. Doe is taking in the afternoon would need to tighten up.

In the matter of the 1966 Economic Survey, it is reported that the “survey returns have been edited and punched into IBM cards ready to be processed by the computers.” It’s also reported that the return on the survey was a whopping 56 percent. In the TBA’s 2002 survey, which surveyed members and nonmembers, it was conducted mostly electronically (no punch cards) and the return was 12.7 percent.

Do You C.A.R.E.?

In November 1965, the column was “Confidentially Speaking: To the Legal Secretary CARE,” which addressed the legal secretary directly, not the lawyer. “Being a Legal Secretary, in the truest sense, is not an easy task! It is not just going to the office at 9 each morning and departing promptly at 5 in the evening. It is not ‘putting up with’ your boss … It is not just collecting your pay check. No, being a Legal Secretary is not just a job, it is a career.”

The key to being a top legal secretary is C.A.R.E.: Conscientiousness (“She is the girl who comes to the office early, who, of her own accord, stays a few minutes late because their is work which she feels should be completed …”), Appearance (A nicely typed, crisp letter, well spaced on the page, is most attractive and carries the message far more effectively than a smudged, crowded letter with strikeovers and erasures), Respect (This includes respecting the privacy of clients as well as the training and ability of the lawyer) and Efficiency (including directing skills and abilities to the most effective use, developing ways to improve her skills, to eliminate wasted operations and unnecessary tasks).

Still a Good Idea

In February 1973, “Use and Development of a Law Office Manual,” directs lawyers to use an office manual, how to develop one and what should go in it and even how to present it. The sample “Operations Manual for [the law firm of] Care, Considerate & Concerned Lawyers” is 16 pages long. Some particulars:

  • Smoking, gum chewing and snacking in the office are not indicative of an efficient, businesslike, professional office. Such activities do not contribute to the image nor the work product of the firm. You are, therefore, respectfully requested to forego these activities during your work day.
  • A refrigerator and hot plate have been provided in the coffee room … no employee shall have food at his desk during regular working hours. Eating shall be strictly confined to the coffee room area.

There are subheads about use of the telephone, document uniformity, filing systems, Tickler system, expense charges and equipment. Although employment laws have surely changed since then — and the sample one printed in that Journal would not be much help anymore — the practice of using an office manual is, of course, still in use today.

—Suzanne Craig Robertson