Give up the day job

It's not only nurses and cab drivers who work at night. Office staff have joined their ranks.
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The Independent Online
Mention to anyone that you're a night worker and he'll probably assume you're a security guard, nurse, factory shift worker or mini-cab driver. But in today's round-the-clock employment culture, there's nothing to stop office workers being at their desks from the small hours until dawn. Leading the way are the banks of high-flying legal secretaries who are employed by large law firms. Once the day-time workers have left, the specialist secretaries move in and start to clear the backlog of documents that are needed in all parts of the world by start of business the next day.

Secretarial service units came into being five to 10 years ago as City law firms found they were unable to process the amount of document work during the day. These super secretaries are paid handsome salaries to turn around complex, error-free legal documents at great speed.

Clifford Chance, the international law firm in Aldersgate Street, London, which employs 2,000 lawyers worldwide, has a system in which an early and a late shift operate between 4pm and 4am, with 33 evening secretaries and 19 on the night shift. The move towards late working came in 1987 following a merger which increased the firm's overall workload. With clients in the US, the Middle East, and Asia, 24-hour working is the only method of turning documentation around in time, according to the firm's spokesman, Tom Rose.

"There is absolutely no way in which we would meet our deadlines without night secretaries,' he explains. "The volume of work involved in acquisitions and large transactions means that the paperwork can only get cleared in time by working after hours. With globalised business growing all the time, we are having to employ more staff on this basis."

So who is night-time working suited to? "A number of people," insists Douglas Soper, vice-chairman of the Institute of Legal Secretaries. "It is particularly popular with those returning to work after a long time away from the workplace and with parents who have reasonably grown-up children. They can spend the evening with them and put them to bed. Then, with the other partner at home to look after them, they can go off to work."

It is also ideal for those workers who can be described as "night owls". Dr Elfed Morgan of Birmingham University, who is conducting research into the effects of shift work, says people considering working through the night should first determine whether they are a lark or an owl. Contrary to popular opinion, he claims, this is not usually changeable, not least because it is inherited to some extent. "There is evidence that morning people fare less well on night shifts," he explains. Typically, a night secretary's remit will be to type up court reports, conveyancing papers, sales completions and leases - all requiring accuracy plus specialist knowledge of legal terminology. These super secretaries also require sound IT knowledge since there is seldom access to back-up computer staff through the night.

Night secretaries all agree that they have a more creative, pro-active role than the conventional day-time secretary. "We find we can get through much more work without the distractions of the phone going and people chatting," adds one legal secretary for a corporate City law firm in London. "It can be a treadmill but the hours suit me and the money's good. It also means I can be at home with my child during the day." Having been a daytime secretary, she finds her new role far more interesting. "And the time goes really quickly."

Despite these benefits, claims Mr Soper, there is still a huge shortage of competent legal secretaries, particularly in London. Consequently they are able to demand high fees - night work in this field tends to pay on average about pounds 2,000 more a year than day work.

The high-tech nature of the job means that one branch of a large firm can easily be in touch with another at all hours. Consequently if one branch is overloaded and another is experiencing slack, the surplus can be taken on by another branch via fax or e-mail. The juggling that's needed creates a variety of tasks, from working on contracts to setting up new styles of working. In addition, the secretaries tend to work across departments rather than for one partner.

"With the way this trend is taking off, there seems to be a new career developing, with the demand for a new kind of self-sufficient, pro-active secretary," said Mr Soper. "A number of normal secretaries are now making the transition to becoming document production technicians. But technician is the wrong word - these are responsible and demanding jobs."