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THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’  My years in the legal profession and how much it has changed.

By March 28, 2024General

I was a first-time legal secretary in a law office in downtown Dallas a long time ago, soon after my marriage. Let’s just say my skirts were really short at the time. (If you watched Mad Men, a TV show set in the 1960s about men on Madison Avenue in the advertising business, that’s the era I’m talking about.)

Out of college I had been encouraged to find employment in a law office because law firms paid well and the work could be very interesting.  I had exceptional skills, to be frank.  Typing came easy for me and I could fly across that keyboard – like, at 125 wpm — before computers. I also knew shorthand (pen writing) which is a dying art these days. Copies of letters for the file were made with carbon paper. I think we did have a photocopy machine of some kind that was really slow.

In that first law office job I was secretary to four attorneys who leased office space together in downtown Dallas, each of whom had amazingly different personalities. One was a gruff and crude criminal attorney, one was very young and mostly handled divorces, one practiced probate, and one spent his time preening before a mirror. There was another attorney who owned the office, and he had his own secretary.

My naive, newly married self soon had her eyes opened to the world. Criminal clients sat on the couch staring at me, and I imagined they would pull out a gun and shoot me. The other secretary (married) was having an affair with a stockbroker, and they bought me gifts. One of our clients was a Dallas Cowboys football player, and he was the biggest, tallest man I had ever seen.

Times were different from today in that the term “sexual harassment” was not considered in offices with lots of men. I had an experience when the attorney dictating a document to me made a remark about my youthful, sexy legs. I was very uncomfortable but didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to speak up. I was unaware of anything wrong with what he did. Today that attorney would have faced legal consequences for his behavior.

Another time, that same attorney had me walk several blocks to pick up a rifle (he was an avid hunter), and I remember my humiliation as I walked down a Dallas street carrying a huge rifle in a case. I can’t imagine doing that today.

Women called “feminists” protested for lack of equal rights for women and burned their bras, but I wasn’t one of them. I ignorantly accepted my place in an office environment ruled by men, but thank God for those brave women who paved the way for women’s empowerment today.        

I worked in several law offices over the years, working hard but also fetching coffee and running personal errands for the lawyers, practices that were expected. I was employed by two wealthy brothers, ran their errands for them, and called their driver to pick them up and drive them around. In the 21st century, attorneys get their own coffee, at last, and make their own phone calls.

Although I was the mother of two young children, I was restless and wanted a career that I thought more important than being a legal secretary.  I “wanted it all” or thought I did. I studied, passed the test, and became a court reporter – a Certified Shorthand Reporter for the State of Texas. Although I was my own boss, this stressful profession was — well, stressful, so after a while I was back in a law office working with lawyers and churning out petitions and documents. 

Computers totally changed legal processing. Preparation and outflow of documents was faster and easier, and a quick email could be sent, saving a lot of phone time. Becoming a “paperless office” was a new concept for me, but I learned its benefits at a large law firm. I was accustomed to keeping a copy of everything and then filing the copy in a cabinet.  In paperless offices every document was scanned and would then live on a digital file.  Anyone in the firm could look at the “file.” Also, in the coming years, I was pleased to note that the women called “Legal Secretaries” were treated with more respect and were an extension of the lawyer rather than being a “workhorse who fetched coffee.”

Since time began, attorneys by law were not allowed to advertise their services. However, in 1977 the U.S. Supreme Court essentially struck down prohibitions against advertising by attorneys; however, there are current rules of professional conduct for lawyers in every state. Now you see attorney advertising on buses, print advertising, and TV. But by far digital marketing is the number one way to reach markets for potential customers.  Add to that content marketing, social media, and more.

Now I work for A Case for Women, an organization that empowers women by making lawsuits understandable and accessible to women. ACFW educates women about issues that plaintiff lawyers are willing to work on and to accept contingency fees. ACFW also maintains a vast network of law firms that have the expertise and the experience to represent women when there is an opportunity to take on a corporation such as a pharmaceutical company, an institution accused of harboring sexual predators, or the maker of a defective product.

A Case for Women has numerous successful business  relationships with attorneys and law firms across the country. The majority of the attorneys are widely respected women who have garnered huge settlements for their clients. Times have changed as more women become lawyers and take on leadership roles previously held by men. I am proud to be a part of the legal profession, from support staff to attorneys and now as a women’s advocate at A Case for Women.

If you were sexually assaulted at work by a boss or other superior, there is something you can do about it. Contact us now to talk through potential legal options, and take your power back.

-Shirley Wilcox