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Basic legal sector admin tasks – what do they involve and why are they important?

Basic legal sector admin tasks – what do they involve and why are they important?

Matthew Dow

15/10/2019

Trainee solicitor responsibility levels differ considerably between law firms. At smaller firms, the trainee will be expected to cover a broad range of a practice area. For example, the trainee in a corporate seat may perform legal research and drafting and engage in client dialogue across a variety of corporate matters.

By contrast, in larger firms the trainee may be more involved in project management. For instance, in a large M&A deal or multi-jurisdictional asset finance agreement, the junior lawyer will likely be liaising with counsel and ensuring that key parts of the process are in order.

An example of this focused work could be confirming that all the documents required for the conditions precedent have been signed. Further, they will update key stakeholders regarding any changes to a data room. The trainee will be part of a vast team and assisting the process management.

Project management – a tough sell

There is a huge difference between law at university and legal sector work. The skills of project management are more essential for a junior lawyer than erudite essays.

Consequently, with traditional academic legal work being a lesser aspect of the role of trainees at many firms, there is often a temptation to emphasise the obvious ‘law’ elements to prospective applicants. You may attend open days and experience the current trainee lawyers trying to sell this core legal part of their work – pro bono, drafting, research, etc. There may also be a downplay of false reputations of endless photocopying.

For transparency, most trainees will often admit to performing some inevitable admin tasks, such as proofreading, redacting, bundling and drafting witness statements. However, these responsibilities are usually described as a necessary evil.

This admin jargon was often quoted at me, but with little context as to what these ‘bundling’ tasks entail. Further, given that admin responsibilities are regularly downplayed and minimised, it is worthwhile explaining their nature and importance.

Redacting and anonymisation

Redactions will likely be delegated to an admin team or paralegals. Nonetheless, a trainee solicitor may become involved as a point of the last review.

Redacting comprises the intended removal of text from a document. A redaction takes the form of a black opaque bar, ensuring that the underlying text cannot be seen by the reader. The text may be redacted for a variety of reasons. For instance, there may be personal information that does not need to be revealed to a judge (eg, home addresses, children’s names, personal telephone numbers or email addresses).

Elsewhere, there may be classified material that does not need to be disclosed given the nature of the case. For example, an employment tribunal matter regarding the Equality Act probably does not need to reveal the intricate details of the secret government military project the employee was working on.

Alternatively, there may be prejudicial information that does not relate to the specific case – for example, discussion of previous convictions in a criminal case. The inclusion of this information may affect the judge’s evaluation of the case, so it is often redacted.

Anonymisation is similar to redacting. Imagine a document where nothing makes sense as all text is removed by an overzealous redactor. Black box redacting makes determining the identity of individuals in a document very difficult.

Therefore, anonymisation is the process whereby individuals and locations can be identified by a proxy (eg, ‘Individual A’ and ‘Individual B’, rather than Mr Smith and Mrs Smith). So the finalised document will say ‘Individual A and Individual B went to School 1’. A separate key will then usually be provided so that all readers can understand, but no revealing data can be seen publicly.

Changes to the redaction process

These redaction tasks used to be completed with marker pens. Trainees would go through large numbers of documents, marking out anything that may be considered sensitive information.

These days, most firms use technical assistance. The document will be converted to searchable text using a process known as optical character recognition. Then trainees will scan through the document, quickly removing sensitive information that used to take hours to remove manually.

This automated process creates a danger though. With lots of documents being shared electronically, the text beneath the redaction (metadata) can remain. Many documents have been ostensibly redacted, only to have the text underneath be completely readable when copied and pasted.

Redacting can be a subjective process too. It is important to make sure all sensitive information is removed, but defining sensitive is not always clear cut. Excessive redactions may be argued to be hiding crucial evidence. Therefore, a trainee’s review and judgement on this admin task are important for client management and case progression.

Bundling and bibling

Bundling and bibling are the processes of assembling documents for distribution to the relevant parties. ‘Bundling’ is the typical term used during litigation and the creation of a court bundle. In contrast, ‘bibling’ is the description of the document assembly relevant to the parties in a transaction.

During bundling, all the relevant evidence documents that will be used during the trial/tribunal/hearing will need to be collected. The bundle will also need to be indexed properly and page numbered for the barrister’s ease of use. In addition, often multiple bundles will need to be created for each side of a dispute. These bundles will need to be served in accordance with tight court deadlines.

Bundling, like redacting, used to be done regularly by hand. All the relevant documents, not infrequently numbering thousands of pages, would be printed and put in order. Mistakes in ordering could mean additional time spent rearranging pages or renumbering.

Modern lawyers have technological help with this administrative task. Nonetheless, the trainee will almost certainly review the page order, ensuring consistent naming conventions and completing further checks.

This bundle review process is still important. The bundle is the final official representation of your argument that is served on the other party. Basic admin mistakes may lead to months of hard work being wasted if evidence is accidentally left out.

Court runs

This is admittedly not the biggest part of a trainee job. Yet it is not unusual for a new starter to serve documents at court. This task may involve receiving a stamp as confirmation from the relevant admin team at the courthouse. Failure to get this stamp of approval can lead to headaches regarding the admissibility of evidence.

Proofreading

Proofreading commonly occurs alongside drafting tasks. It is an important, necessary process. This is because any inconsistent numbering conventions, referrals to incorrect clauses and references from precedents can fundamentally change the nature of the contractual agreement. Moreover, spotting typos and grammatical errors is an important exercise in maintaining the firm’s image as a producer of high-quality work.

Proofreading may seem tedious, but it is central to legal work. Many cases have gone to the highest courts where a definition has not been consistently used or explicitly described. The trainee may have responsibility for picking up on these avoidable errors.

Taking minutes and drafting witness statements

A trainee may take the minutes of a meeting or draft a witness statement. A witness statement commonly features an interview of a witness, which will then be typed up and sent for the witness’s approval.

Rather than a verbatim record of every word said, the statement identifies significant evidential points. Most statements often provide case background and further explanation of the evidence, referring to significant contemporary emails, phone calls or policies that were in place.

Conclusion

Admittedly, admin tasks are not the most exciting projects for solicitors. Depending on the type of firm and the practice area, your admin responsibilities will vary. At many firms, these tasks are now largely delegated to paralegals or legal assistants, or produced via legal tech. However, in the past, administrative duties would have been considered entry-level trainee work.

Nonetheless, these admin projects do make a difference. Therefore, it pays to know what these projects may entail and how the work affects the client. Further, as a legal skill, it is worthwhile considering how you can excel at these tasks to deliver for your team.