It is every boss's nightmare - the treasured secretary announces she is leaving.
For solicitor Kate Brearley, there is now the daunting task of replacing her secretary of nearly three years, Bettina Gould - who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of clients' affairs and the "charm of an angel".
As Brearley, partner in London solicitors Stephenson Horwood, wrote when nominating Gould for the 1997/98 London Legal Secretary of the Year Award: "She is the secretary that everyone longs for but no one else can have - poachers beware!"
But the skills of a good legal secretary are much in demand and Gould, 30, who went on to win the award with its prize of a holiday in America, has indeed been "poached" to manage the new London office of an international firm.
It is an opportunity for her to build on the expertise she has developed during seven years as a legal secretary. "The work has been fascinating - people wanting to come into law shouldn't feel intimidated as long as they have common sense and are willing to learn," said Gould, who was invited as a result of the award to a reception at Buckingham Palace for young adult achievers.
According to Sarah Singer, director of London Law Appointments, the job market for legal secretaries is "very buoyant". Salaries are about pounds 2,000 more than in other professions, such as accountancy, with an average of pounds 20,500 to pounds 21,000 and going as high as pounds 28,000. Many firms are also offering perks to compete for staff, such as season ticket loans, private health insurance and gym membership.
The shortage of experienced legal secretaries has also meant firms are more prepared to train non-legal secretaries, particularly if they come from partnership backgrounds, such as accountants or surveyors, or from investment banks.
One secretary who has just joined top law firm Clifford Chance from one of the City's largest accountancy firms waxed lyrical about the perks - in-house gym, swimming pool, squash courts and aerobic studio, subsidised restaurant, video club, dry cleaning, flower ordering and sandwich shops - "I don't think we want for anything!"
But it is not all glamour and LA Law-style corporate excitement.
Singer warned: "The work can be monotonous with a very high typing content making up as much as 80 to 90 per cent of the job."
The main routes into a legal secretarial career are for school leavers either to do a legal secretarial college course or to join a law firm as an office junior. College leavers who have already completed a recognised course can join law firms on a trainee legal secretarial programme or as an office junior or trainee.
"It is more difficult to place graduates as firms are sceptical whether graduates will be happy to perform this type of role permanently, given the high typing content," she said.
Some firms will sponsor secretaries who want to study to become legal executives - qualified lawyers who specialise in particular areas of law, supervised by a solicitor - and there are secretaries who go on to become solicitors.
But other firms are less enthusiastic about people using the job as a stepping stone.
Avril Plumb, personnel manager with London solicitors Cameron McKenna, said they are offering 12 places this year for a two-year trainee course for candidates straight out of legal secretarial college. They received about 10 applications for every place and look for people who have the "potential to acquire a City polish and be able to cope with a busy workload.
"We are running the course because we have a constant need for legal secretaries. There is a shortage in the market place so we felt we would rather grow our own.
"But we would not encourage them to think of a sideways move to become legal executives. It is definitely not the way to become a solicitor."
However, the interest is there. Irene Dodgson, public relations manager for the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex), said a lot of legal secretaries did their courses. "Some say they are almost doing their boss's job anyway so they might as well get the qualifications.
"Like all professions, the hardest thing is getting the job. One of the benefits of the Ilex training is that it is part-time so you can learn as you earn."
The minimum requirement for doing Ilex courses is four top-grade GCSEs, including English, or, for those over 21, a reference from an employer. It takes four years' part-time studying to become a Member of Ilex, followed by two years' experience as a legal executive to become a Fellow and a further two years doing the solicitors' Legal Practice Course part-time. Those who pass are exempted from the two-year training contracts which graduate solicitors then have to complete.
Dodgson said: "A man wrote to us recently complaining that we were making it too easy for women to become legal executives and we were being unfair to men. We pointed out that he, too, could become a legal secretary.
"About 69 per cent of our students are now women compared with 50 per cent five years ago and a fair proportion are starting as legal secretaries.
"How far can they go? There are still a few traditionalists out there but I don't think there is as much discrimination as there used to be."
Recruitment specialist Rachel Clark, associate director of Legal Recruitments in Leeds, the second biggest legal centre outside the City, said the role of the legal secretary was changing from volume typing to more of a paralegal role.
"A lot of the people I place are studying for their legal executive courses and, in certain areas, such as conveyancing, it is quite easy to become a trainee fee earner handling things like remortgaging."
She said firms were becoming much more accommodating towards part-time work, job sharing and flexible hours to avoid losing good secretarial staff. The salaries were much lower than in London - between pounds 13,300 and pounds 14,000 for a two- to five-year experienced legal secretary - but the quality of life was very different.
There are always stereotypes in any profession - from the stuffy to the flashy to the sexist - but Clark said: "Even in the smaller firms, recruitment is now handled by a personnel manager. The days of an old boy senior partner saying 'I want a pretty girl under 30' - that doesn't happen any more."
While most legal secretaries are women, there are growing numbers of both permanent and temporary male secretaries.
Philip Hudson, 36, is a freelance temporary legal secretary in Leeds with 18 years' experience. "In the old typewriter days, it was considered a very female job but now with new technology it doesn't hurt men's egos so much to be seen doing it."
London Law Appointments 0171 208 5800; Legal Recruitments, Leeds 0113 242 2141; Ilex 01234 841000.
Secretary to solicitor in seven years
"I don't think I am seen as a traitor but as someone championing a cause", says Janet Brownlow, who jumped the fence from legal secretary to solicitor.
"I am still friendly with many of the secretaries. What did change was the attitude of other solicitors towards me. Doors opened which hadn't while I was a secretary.
"I hope I now treat my secretary reasonably well. When you have seen it from the other side you appreciate what they are going through."
Janet, 34, "dropped into" being a legal secretary after deciding medicine, which she studied for two years, and accountancy, which she studied for a year, were not for her.
She joined London solicitors Reynold Porter Chamberlain in September 1989 as a legal secretary, beginning her studying to become a legal executive a week later. The firm paid her course fees during the four years of part- time study required to become a Member of the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex).
During her studies she stopped being a secretary and became a legal executive. She then took a year's unpaid leave to do the solicitors' Legal Practice Course. Her firm paid her pounds 5,500 course fees and, in 1996, she was enrolled as a solicitor. After specialising in professional indemnity cases she changed last year to insolvency law.
"It is a great way of becoming a solicitor. You don't have to give up work and fund yourself through university, although you do have to be reasonably disciplined to study in your own time.
"It can be difficult to swap over to being a legal executive because people still view you as a secretary. I am the only one in the firm who has qualified as a solicitor this way - luckily somebody saw the potential."Reuse content