What Every Legal Secretary Should Know

The job of an attorney service is to make the job of an employees of a law firm easier!

Attorney Service: A support service that provides court filing, process service, investigations, and legal resources to law firms. In short, it is a support service for attorneys, paralegals, legal secretaries, and staff. They will be your most valuable resource, if you let them.

Introduction: Imagine your first job as a legal secretary in a small law firm and your boss says, “We need a new attorney service. Go ahead and find one who can start tomorrow.” Where would you begin?

Whether it’s your first day on the job or after several years of experience, you will be asked to do the research to find an attorney service that will make your job easier. After all, that’s the value of such a service…making your busy job easier.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with a clear understanding of the role of an attorney service, how to find a good one, and work with them effectively.

What An Attorney Service Does for Your Firm:

1. Provides information: Your attorney service will provide you with court filing fees, changes in Court Rules, up-dates on legal issues, and is a reference for commonly asked questions about legal procedure. It does not provide information about laws; that is the role of an attorney. Most attorney services have a website with valuable resources.

2. Handles filing of court documents: The first step in court filing is for you to prepare the documents for filing, including obtaining the attorney’s signature on the documents, making the appropriate number of copies, and preparing filing instructions, commonly known as a “buck slip.”

Your attorney service will have a “runner” pick-up documents from your office daily, normally in the morning, and arrange to have them filed with the appropriate court. The runner is not typically the one who files the documents since there are 27 courts in the Los Angeles area in which documents are filed.

The runner takes your documents to a central location, usually their office, where they are sorted by the various courts where they are to be filed. Your documents are combined with other law firms who also having filings for the same court. A “court filer” takes the documents to the appropriate court and either 1) files the document at the filing window or directly in the courtroom, depending on the court requirement, or 2) drops off the filing for the court Clerk to process. Typically, it takes one court filer for every 4 branch courts and 2-4 for Los Angeles Central Superior Court.

Filing done at the filing window or in the courtroom and returned to your office the following business day is known as a “walk thru” filing. Most documents are not filed using this method since there is usually an additional charge for the walk thru. It is used for last minute statute filings or for a document that must be served right away.

Drop-off filings are simply left in the Clerk’s in tray and are processed, by the Clerk, as they are able to get to them. The Clerk is supposed to date-stamp the document on the day it is received, although they do not actually process it at that time. The completion time depends on the type of document. New case filings take one to two court days, while a Request to Enter Default may take two to three weeks.

No matter which method is used, after the documents are processed by the court Clerk, you will receive a “conformed” copy with the court stamp and date of filing. The conformed copy may not come back to you until several days, or even weeks, after it is submitted depending on the type of document.

“The most common problem you will experience…. is not understanding the difficulties and time delays associated with court filings.”

If you have not already done so, it is crucial for your future success that you pay a visit to a local courthouse and observe what goes on at the filing window. If at all possible, ask your attorney boss if you can file some documents to give you the first-hand experience of knowing the challenges involved in court filing. The most common problem you will experience with your attorney service is you not understanding the difficulties and time delays associated with court filings and, as a result, having unreasonable expectations.

There will be times when you need to obtain a status on the filing of a particular document. There are three ways to obtain status on a filing: 1) fax a copy of the original buck slip of which you have made a copy and placed in the client file, to your attorney service, or 2) obtain the latest status on-line, or 3) call the court to obtain status.

You must be aware that neither type of request will provide an fast, accurate answer to your inquiry. Requests for status of filings must always be in writing when requesting status from your attorney service. Faxing a request for status to the attorney service will not usually get an immediate answer since they will have to check with the court directly to obtain status. Often, the documents are in the court system still in process and will not be available for status. Always fax a copy of the buck slip with the words added. “Status Requested” [today’s date].

Visiting the court’s website will allow you to enter the case number and get a summary of filed documents for the case by scrolling to the bottom of the page. However, there is typically a delay of 3 to 7 court days in entering filed documents into the computer. Of course, new cases will not have a case number and cannot be tracked.

The final method is the most inaccurate and unreliable since calling the Clerk will typically result in false information provided by the Clerk. Remember that every court has hundreds, if not thousands, of filings daily. The Clerk who answers the phone will usually look up the data on the same website as you have access to, so if the documents have not yet been entered on the case register, the Clerk will advise you that the documents have not been filed. In reality, they cannot state that they have not been filed; they have just not been entered into the system.

In summary, court filing is an inefficient process that requires patience. Although the attorney may be pressuring you to obtain a current status, it is important that you understand the limits available. Seeing first-hand the court filing system at work and trusting your attorney service is the key to making the system work well for you.

3. Serves legal documents: Every new case filing (Summons & Complaint) will eventually need to be served on each Defendant. The problem is attorneys tend to wait until the last minute to serve the documents or try to settle the case without serving the defendant. Both situations result in higher fees for having the documents served with little time remaining before court established deadlines. Part of your job is using a tickling system that will provide you with advanced notice of the deadlines and avoid last minute rushes.

You request service of process by completing a service instruction (provided by the attorney service) to advise the process server who is to be served and where the service is to be made.

Service of process is typically handled by either a Sheriff or a Registered Process Server. The Sheriff is not recommended because the first attempt normally takes two weeks and service is attempted only during daytime hours by a uniformed officer. Many people tend to evade a person wearing a uniform who is knocking on their front door. The Sheriff usually limits their efforts to three attempts.

A Registered Process Server is bonded and authorized by the county in which they live to serve legal documents anywhere in the state. All attorney services use Registered Process Servers who are trained in service techniques.

“Most process servers today are highly skilled, and are polite and courteous when serving legal documents.”

Process serving is not handled in the manner in which you might imagine. Most process servers today are highly skilled, are polite and courteous when serving legal documents. A good process server will not allow his or her purpose to be revealed until speaking with the Defendant.

Service of process is typically done in one of 4 ways, depending on the type of document:
1) personal service,
2) substituted service,
3) service by publication, or
4) service by mail.
It is critical that you understand the different situations in which each method must be used.

Personal service means the documents are delivered directly to the Defendant. It is not necessary that the Defendant actually touches the documents or agrees to accept them. Service is made by the act of leaving the documents in the presence of the Defendant.

Substituted service is made by serving a person other than the Defendant who is at least 18 years old, and who resides in the same household. Most legal documents are served using this method. If serving at the Defendant’s place of employment, service made be made on the person who is apparently in charge of the business at the time of service. Substituted service can be made only after making a diligent effort to personally serve the Defendant after 3 unsuccessful attempts. Service is followed up by mailing a copy of the same documents to the same address by first-class mail. Therefore, you will need to provide the process server with a minimum of 2 conformed copies of the documents. Caution: Do not mail by certified mail since the Code of Civil Procedure specifies the use of first-class mail.

Service by Publication is rarely utilized and can only be employed when there is no other method available for service. Typically, it is used when a Defendant has moved and left no trace of their whereabouts. A private investigator must conduct a search for the Defendant, and upon determining that he or she cannot be found, prepares a Declaration for Publication. The attorney will sign an Application for Publication of Summons and Order. Those documents require a Judge’s signature and publication in a local newspaper in the county where the Defendant was last known to reside.

Service by mail is available only on specific documents, such as pleading and notices after the Summons and Complaint have been served. Some courts also allow service of a limited number of documents via fax or electronic means (email).

You will be asked to obtain a status on a service of process. Your attorney service will be pleased to advise you as to the current status of the service. If it is still out for service, there is a valid reason. You should provide them with additional information, if available, to assist the process server in completing the service.

” Repeated requests for status will not speed up the service. Every time you make an inquiry, it actually slows down the process. Patience in allowing the process server to do their job is the best resolution to completing the service.”

There are valid reasons completion of a service takes longer than expected, including Defendant not being present, or no one of suitable age being present if substituted service can be made. The process server will continue his/her efforts until the service has been completed. You must be prepared to allow the process server to do their job. Repeated requests for status will not speed up the service. Every time you make an inquiry, it actually slows down the process. Patience in allowing the process server to do their job is the best resolution to completing the service.

Legal secretaries should have a basic understanding of process serving so as to not make errors in timing of assignments or unrealistic expectations of completion of service. Additional information regarding service of process can be found in the book, Getting Rich in Process Serving and Process Serving fro Pros: Advanced Service Techniques.

The following will illustrate the appropriate method for commonly used documents.

Methods Available for Service of Process

Type of Document
Summons & Complaint (Petition)
Cross-Complaint (with Summons)
Statement of Damages
Order to Show Cause X
Citation (Probate)
Subpoena Duces Tecum
Order for Appearance - Judgment Debtor
Temporary Restraining Order
Supplemental pleadings
Plaintiff’s Claim (Small Claims)

* A Subpoena Duces Tecum seeking production of records without a personal appearance may be served by substituted service on an employee who is designated to accept service (commonly referred to a Custodian of Records)

4. Skip Tracing: Every law firm needs a source to track down missing Defendants, even sometimes locate your own client. “Skip tracing” or “locate” is a procedure performed by a private investigator to determine the current whereabouts of a missing person.

To start the skip tracing process, make the request to your attorney service by providing them with the subject’s name, last known address, and any available data, such as Social Security number, date of birth, Driver’s License number, etc. They have resources to readily find the current address. In the unlikely event that no current address is available, they will provide you with a Declaration for Publication.

Today, 99+% of the population can be tracked down in a matter of days. Caution: Do not try to find Defendants yourself using free Internet resources as the information is almost always out of date or incomplete and will lead to time delays and additional costs to your firm for bad addresses when service of process is attempts.

How Attorney Services Charge: Your firm is charged a monthly “retainer” that includes daily pick-up and routine court filing. There will be additional charges for special handling filings, such as a walk thru, case research, copies of court documents, out-of-area filings, County Recorder records and recordings, and Archives retrieval. Typical charges for one attorney will be $85.00 per month. That is a small price when you consider there are usually 20 working days in a months and it figures to be about $4.00 per day to send someone to your office and handle all routine filings. A second attorney in the same office will typically result in an additional $15.00-20.00 monthly charge. Members of local Bar Associations may receive a discount.

Process service typically runs about $35.00 per defendant, per address, for a routine service. A “rush” service is usually double the basic rate. Out-of-area services will be more depending on the area for service. A few attorney services provide nationwide and international services and can guide the attorney through the unique requirements for every state and country.

Investigations are usually billed on a flat rate basis. Discounts are often given for automatic locate if address provided is incorrect. The current going rate for a skip trace is $135.00-$200.00. Many attorney services will reduce that rate to a flat fee of $85.00, if allowed to automatically locate the person if there is a “bad address” on a service of process.


Archives: The section of the court where older files are stored. Generally, files that are older than 3 years or cases that have been closed are kept in Archives. It takes longer to retrieve records from the Archives section.

Buckslip: Filing instructions (blanks are provided by your attorney service. It tells the attorney service where to file the document. You file out one buckslip for each filing request.

Conformed Copy: The court-stamped copy of a filed document that comes back to the attorney’s office.

Court filing: The process of delivering legal documents to the court.

Custodian of Records: Employee who maintains custody and control of business records.

Drop-Off: Court filings that are left with the court Clerk for later processing.

Original: The original document to be filed that has the attorney’s original signature.

Registered Process Server: A process server who is bonded and who has filed the proper documents to become authorized to serve legal documents.

Retainer: The monthly charge of an attorney service to handle daily pick-ups and court filings.

Rush Service: A service of process that must be completed within a short period of time, typically less than 3-5 days.

Service of process: The delivery of legal documents by either personal or substituted service.

Skip Trace: Locating a person who has moved.

Substituted Service: An alternative method of service by serving a person other than the Defendant after
making at least 3 unsuccessful attempts at personal service. Each attempt must be at least 5 hours apart. The same documents must also be mailed by first-class class mail.

Walk Thru: The filing of a document at the filing window or courtroom by waiting in line or taking it directly to the courtroom. The Clerk will provide a conformed copy while the filer is there.

Summary: As a legal secretary, you will have the opportunity to work closely with your attorney service. You have the choice to either view them as the enemy, in which case your job will be difficult and unrewarding. The other option is to consider your attorney service as your greatest resource and an entity that will make your job easier, if you let them.

No legal secretary can “know it all” and you should not be expected to do so. If you view your attorney service as your “partner in legal services,” you will have a partnership that will make you look good in the eyes of your employer. Their job truly is to make your job easier!

What Every Legal Secretary Should Know
About Attorney Services©
Provided by Process Service Network

For additional information, contact:
Process Service Network
Los Angeles, CA 91306

Nelson Tucker is CEO and President of Process Service Network, based in Los Angeles, CA, with offices in 7 countries. They provide international service of process in every country.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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