Support staff structures for the law firm of the future

August 28, 2020

In the past months, we’ve gathered valuable insights from various law firm leaders in our virtual roundtables and consultations. The consensus is clear: The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating new ways of working and accentuating the need for firms to better understand how, and how much support, their secretarial teams are able to provide when working remotely. From the Partner who told us they haven’t spoken to their secretary in weeks to the associate who is relying on their secretary to support video conference call logistics almost daily, reactions have been wide-ranging.

In a nutshell, the pandemic has led to one large experiment in remote working, resource utilization, and cost rationalization, causing law firm leaders to rethink staffing and secretary-to-attorney ratios.

Challenging the secretary-to-attorney ratio

While the COVID-19 crisis has led law firms to be more open to remote working as a semi-permanent or permanent working arrangement, it also exposed law firm overcapacity, particularly in support staffing. Working from home, lawyers have become more self-sufficient, taking on tasks normally done by their secretaries. The pandemic has also intensified the ever-present pressure to reduce costs while driving growth.

To address these challenges, law firms are now taking a long, hard look at their support staff structures with plans to trim the fat. Our research reinforces this: About 77% of law firm leaders cited admin functions as key targets for cost-cutting.

As non-revenue generating functions, secretarial staff have the least impact on operations, but they also happen to be one of the biggest operational and employment costs. PwC’s 2019 Law Firm Statistical Survey revealed that one of the biggest expenses in operations was secretarial, with a median cost of $18,543 per timekeeper.

Measures to right-size secretarial and admin headcount give law firms the opportunity to raise their secretary-to-attorney ratio even higher than the average 1:4.

This ratio has long been a metric for success. Law firms that achieved a higher ratio were considered more innovative. It showed they were able to leverage emerging tools and technology for self-service tasks and maximize resources.

While shedding support staff and treating it as a cost-cutting exercise will have short-term gains, those gains could come at the expense of productivity and service to fee earners and ultimately clients. This begs the question: Is the secretary-to-attorney ratio the right metric on which to focus?

Supporting tasks, not people

In an increasingly digital world, more and more activities are supported by technology. Junior associates are more agile and able to use tools that tenured legal secretaries weren’t trained to handle, rendering them less able to support. The most obvious conclusion would be to reduce headcount: If lawyers are becoming more self-sufficient, then fewer secretaries supporting more fee earners must be the answer.

While it may appear that fewer legal secretaries and administrative assistants are needed to support lawyers, this doesn’t mean there is less work to go around. It simply means the support lawyers require from them has changed. The reality is, that the ratios don’t mean each lawyer gets an equal amount of support from their secretary. Often, when we take a closer look at specific firm ratios and utilization we find that the support activities still tend to mimic lower ratios.

For example, we worked with one firm that said they had achieved an 1:8 ratio. However, when we looked more closely at activities and utilization, we found that only one or two of the Partners were receiving the most support, while first- to third-year associates were largely fending for themselves, with their support requests less of a priority and therefore took longer to complete. As a result, the Partners thought the model was working perfectly, and the associates struggled with compromised deadlines and inconsistent service quality.

A virtual admin pool, where resources are set up to support tasks and not people, can drive effective ratios. It’s a simple equation of “who does what, how they do it, and when they do it.” Law firms can have their tenured support staff focus on high-value activities such as communicating with clients and supporting client matter activities, while the admin pool can take on day-to-day tasks and overflow work.

One of Williams Lea’s clients, a leading global law firm, succeeded in building virtual pooled resources. They originally had highly tenured staff with narrow, inflexible skill sets that focused on senior partners. We worked with them to build a virtual admin team to support over 170 first- and second-year associates (a 1:22.5 ratio) from our Wheeling, WV delivery center. After a year of working with the virtual admin pool, associates were given the opportunity to have a dedicated secretary. All of them declined, choosing to continue with the pooled resources model. As a result, the firm saw increased attorney satisfaction and achieved $2M in annual savings.

The right metrics matter

We are seeing shifting paradigms happening across the legal industry, from the emergence and gradual acceptance of new ways of working to the changing role of legal secretaries and administrative assistants.

With all this happening, support staff metrics should evolve as well. The secretary-to-attorney ratio will always be an important metric for operational efficiency and innovation, but law firms need to expand their metrics to encompass not just how many people are supporting and supported, but what activities that support entails. The focus shouldn’t just be on reducing headcount to improve ratios, but on updating the skill sets of tenured secretaries to support fee-earning activities, creating pooled resources to manage day-to-day tasks and overflow, and utilizing tools to track and optimize support staff productivity.

The traditional law firm setting is changing rapidly. In order to thrive in a shifting industry, law firms need to adapt to the new ways of working and ensure they have the right resources to do so.

For more information, download our instant survey report, The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on law firm support operations. Find out what the biggest US and UK law firms are doing to manage operations.

How we help

  • Improve secretary-to-attorney ratios

    Optimizing staff structure through centralized secretarial support

  • Align skills of support staff

    Upskilling support teams to thrive in a digital-first era

  • Improve team productivity

    Boosting productivity using workflows and performance analytics


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