FJSA Letter on Court Compensation Study

February 20, 2007

Honorable W. Royal Furgeson
Chair, Judicial Resources Committee
Judicial Conference of the United States

Dear Judge Furgeson,

          On behalf of the Federal Judges Secretaries Association, I'd like to extend our thanks and appreciation for your invitation to comment on matters of interest to judicial assistants as they relate to the Court Compensation Study.  The FJSA is appreciative of the rare opportunity to give voice to concerns facing today's judicial assistant.

          The task at hand is not an easy one.  It is a challenge to balance competing interests while developing a fair and equitable compensation philosophy for the courts.   Therefore, the following comments are offered to foster greater understanding of the value of our contributions to the judiciary.

          Proposed Benchmark Descriptions

          The proposed Benchmark for Judicial Assistant and Paralegal, where none previously existed, is a step in the right direction.  The descriptions are clear, concise and provide defeinitive standards for each position.

          The proposed judicial assistant benchmark recognizes that our role is knowledge-based and requires expertise beyond traditional clerical and secretarial skills.  Today's judicial assistant is a far cry from the judge's secretary of past years.  The position has evolved beyond ansering the telephone and transcribing dictation based in large part on new technology and increasing caseloads.  The judicial assistant has adapted to meet these challenges - what has not changed is the perception that our contributions have minimal value and subsequently can be easily exchanged for the services of a courtroom deputy and/or law clerk.  Therefore, we applaud the development of the judicial assistant benchmark recognizing that it the first step to defining not only performance in relation to compensation, but also in acknowledging that the judicial assistant is an invaluable chambers resource.

          The proposed Paralegal benchmark is a welcomed and much needed position description for chambers staffing.  Creation of this benchmark is critical for several reasons in that it:  (1) provides for better utilization of existing chambers staff; (2) recognizes the significant contributios made by non-lawyer chambers' staff; and, (3) sets forth a well-defined goal with unlimited potential for growth.

          A matter of concern has arisen regarding the job summary for the paralegal benchmark.  The job summary states in part:  ". . .assist the court by independently responding to inquiries . . , independently reviewing and responding to motions. . ."  (Emphasis added.)  The use of the word "independently" suggests implied consent to exercise legal judgment without supervision of an attorney/judge.  Such actions would constitute the unauthorized practice of law and subject the paralegal to criminal proceedings.  Therefore, the following change is recommended:

". . . Paralegals, at the direction of the judge or supervising attorney, assist the court by responding to inquiries from parties regarding cases, finalizing documents for filing, reviewing and responding to motions. . . .:

          The work performed by judicial assistants is as varied as the chambers in which each is employed.  Hence, a reaslistic performance asessment in relation to compensation has not been an easy undertaking.  Adoption of the proposed Benchmark Descriptions for Judicial Assistant and Paralegal will help identify the unique and diverse contributions non-lawyer chambers staff provide in support of the mission of the United States Courts.

          Judicial assistants are a vastly under-utilized resource within the judiciary.  By nature of the position itself, judicial assistants are required to have substantial working knowledge of all aspects of court functions.  This has never been more true than with the nationwide implementation of CM/ECF.  At a time when the courts are faced with maintaining the same high level of public service during a period of budget shortfalls, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the courts make use of the vast knowledge and hands-on experience that are the hallmark of today's Judicial Assistant.

Respectivefully submitted,

Marlene Stidham

Chair, Legislative Committee

Federal Judges Secretaries Association