Legal Secretaries, Paralegals and the Demand for Skilled Workers

A story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal described the difficulties faced by legal secretaries and support staff in the legal services sector.  The article described downsizing and layoffs at major law firms that seem to have fallen disproportionately on legal secretaries and administrative staff.  There is no doubt that advancements in information technology have reduced the demand for legal secretaries.  The WSJ article also describes how law firms have outsourced some administrative support functions.

A closer look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics Survey indicates that while the number of legal secretary positions in the legal services sector fell by 17.1% in the past decade, employment of lawyers increased by 9.4% and employment of paralegals increased the most dramatically by 37.7%.

Legal Services

The changing employment patterns in the legal services sector reflects a more subtle shift in the demand for administrative support staff than described in the WSJ story.  Demand has increased fairly rapidly for paralegals and other support staff who possess specialized human capital and technical skills.  In 2002 there were 57% more legal secretaries than paralegals in the legal services sector.  Today paralegals outnumber legal secretaries and the gap in job opportunities is likely to continue.  Paralegals earn about 8% more, on average, than legal secretaries but are able to generate more revenue for their employers and therefore will remain in high demand.

The shift from traditional administrative support staff towards more skilled and technically proficient workers observed in the legal services sector is also occurring in other service sectors.  High school graduates who lack the technical skills and human capital required for these new jobs are likely to struggle in the job market.

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