Proud legal secretary looks back on career, co-founding NALS



By Cynthia Price

Legal News

“You know I never wanted to retire — I didn’t think I would ever retire. I could do this forever, I like it that much,” says Patsy Hooker, currently legal secretary to attorney Richard Wendt at Dickinson Wright’s Grand Rapids office.

But life events have overtaken the 77-year-old Hooker, and she is indeed retiring this week. Both her sister and her 55-year-old daughter, who had suffered long illnesses, died in April of this year, and she wants to enjoy time with her husband of 58 years. “I’m at a point where it just feels like it’s time to go,” she says.

That does not mean retiring will be easy for her. Not only is Hooker proud of Wendt’s reputation as “the best bonding attorney in the state,” she also takes simple pleasure in all of the tasks she has performed for him over the past 22 years.

“Dick always threatened to retire when I did, but I didn’t believe him when he said it, and I was right, because he’s not leaving,” Hooker says with a big smile.

The Grand Rapids native’s entire career spans 50 years, stretching back to her placement as a “Kelly Girl” at Warner Norcross and Judd. Kelly Service, the company that pioneered the concept of temporary staffing services in the late 1940s and early 1950s, was renamed Kelly Girl Service, Inc., in 1957 to reflect the popularity of the title given the predominantly-female office employees it provided. Headquartered in Troy, Mich., Kelly Service still provides human resource staffing and consulting around the world.

But Hooker was not destined to remain a “Kelly Girl” for long. The second attorney she “temped” for at Warner Norcross, having overheard her accepting a job at Lear Jet, went directly to David Warner and suggested she be hired full-time. She spent seven years working for Paul Gaston, the well-known attorney who became managing partner and passed away last year. “He was wonderful to work for,” Hooker comments.

From there she went to Miller Johnson as secretary to Bruce Parsons, but as her reputation grew she was solicited to work for the impressive litigator William Buchanan, who was father and grandfather to an entire brood of impressive attorneys including Jack Buchanan and his son Rob and daughter Jane Beckering, Court of Appeals judge.

A colleague who knew William Buchanan approached her to apply, telling her, “I think you’re the best around and he really needs someone like you.” Reluctant to leave Parsons, Hooker eventually took the job working for Buchanan but says with another of her pleasant smiles, “I held out to make more money, which he offered me after talking with his partners.”

Interestingly, Hooker was promoted to office manager of the whole office at the elder Buchanan’s firm, where she served for over four years, but was not happy in that position. “One night I woke up and asked myself, ‘Why am I doing something I don’t like?’ It was like an epiphany. I love being a secretary, how simple, so I thought that was what I should go back to doing.”

Along the way, Hooker was instrumental in starting the local chapter of NALS, “the association for legal professionals.” She insists that she did not start it herself, however. A legal secretary at Warner Norcross named Elizabeth Tulis spoke for a National Secretaries Association meeting in 1967 and excitedly told Hooker what she had found out about “this certification program where you could study and learn more about being a legal secretary, and get to know people in other offices,” as Hooker describes it.

Too busy to pursue the creation of a NALS chapter herself, Hooker says, “I bugged her until she finally wrote the national NALS and got it started.” Tulis was the first president and Hooker was the third.

Hooker took advantage of that certification program, which is called PLS or Professional Legal Secretary, in 1980. Though she does not regard herself as a paralegal, she also got the Professional Paralegal certification from NALS in 2004.

“I passed both of them on the first try, which surprised me because I felt like there was so much I didn’t know. I answered what I thought was the most logical answer, and I guess that worked,” she says, smiling again.

She has since been given the NALS of West Michigan chapter Award of Excellence, in 1973, and been named the state NALS Legal Professional of the Year.

At its June meeting, NALS honored Hooker upon her upcoming retirement.

But the certifications mean the most to her. “My firm belief is that life is a total learning experience and you either keep learning or you get left behind,” she said. “I’m six credits away from an associates degree, but I went to college when I was in my fifties.” Hooker graduated in 1954 from South High School, which she points out is the same high school as President Gerald Ford.

After her epiphany, Hooker served at a number of Grand Rapids firms, including McShane and Bowie, before starting as Wendt’s secretary in 1991. She originally worked with him at Clary Nantz, which folded two months after Wendt and Hooker joined Dickinson Wright in early 1996.

Wendt’s illustrious career has included being counsel on over 1,000 tax-exempt bond issues for a variety of municipal, private, and non-profit projects, many of them through the City of Grand Rapids. He is also city attorney for Hudsonville, Lowell and Rockford and special counsel to many other municipalities. His practice spans banking and financial services, corporate finance, municipal law and real estate.

Hooker, who is now training her replacement, said it has become second nature to do all the steps in processing bonds, and “it seems easy to me.” She adds that of all the areas of law in which she has performed over the years, she likes this one best. “This job of all the jobs I’ve had is the one that makes me feel like I want to do it forever.”

What has changed over the years? One thing Hooker regrets is that legal assistants rarely take dictation anymore. “I love shorthand, and I still use it even when I take a long phone message. Over the years I’ve been called in a few times to do a closing and given dictation for something they need typed right away. Very few people can do that, but I was able to do that for them.”

She said that of course the machines have changed, and that has made a big difference. She originally typed on a manual typewriter, then moved to the IBM Selectric. After a brief period of typing on an MT/ST (a Selectric with a magnetic tape recording system) — “it was awful,” she says — she moved into the computer age. “They have a terrific system here at Dickinson Wright, very technologically advanced,” she observes.

But more than that, Hooker senses a different attitude in the profession, one with less respect for people and their capabilities. “I’ve sensed a change in law firms and how they operate,” she says. “In the past, every firm in town treated their employees like they were special; now people are not seen as indispensable – mostly due to all these machines, I think.

“I’m so grateful that I worked when I did. In fact, I feel lucky to have lived during the time I did. The 1950s were a great time to grow up, and I’ve been lucky to work with the very best lawyers and law firms.”