Supporting the development of young lawyers by testing the virtual captive

January 14, 2020

Phil Muller, Director of Legal Services at Williams Lea explains how virtual administrative support can help young associates reach their potential.

A big theme in the legal sector for the last couple of years has been agile working. The topic touches every aspect of a business from nurturing talent to making the most out of real estate. It’s not just advances in technology that’s made this a hot topic, it’s the rising number of millennials and generation Z entering the workforce.

Millennials have had to ‘plug the gaps’

Millennials have already become a major influence on many businesses today, particularly within law firms. Young lawyers face a competitive market, high billable hour targets and generally less administrative support than their peers 10 years ago. In the absence of support services, young technology savvy lawyers are supporting themselves, often significantly extending the hours they work with non-fee earning and mundane administrative tasks. Typically support services account for between 35% to 45% of staff in a law firm, a significant cost that is only going to rise every year and an increasing focus for every firm. In our 2019-2020 Trends and Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing Survey, 68% of law firm operations leaders said they plan to reduce the secretarial staff and 55% plan to reduce back office and admin staff, which further reinforces this issue. With less support younger lawyers experience less help with day-to-day non-fee earning tasks, leaving them to create their own presentations, book travel and meetings, amend their own documents, process expenses etc. – time that could be better spent working on billable matters. If the trend to scale back these resources persists, it will be a key pain point driving frustration for young lawyers and ultimately, attrition.

The virtual captive allows fee earners to make the most of their billable hours

Law firms are becoming more aware of this problem and are starting to act. Millennials work differently. They need support when they need it and they don’t care where it is located. The virtual executive assistant is already working across a whole host of companies, including the ‘big four’ consultancy firms, and it is working now in law firms.

A client of ours, a leading global law firm, wanted to test the virtual captive support model and changed their PA structure to provide alternative administrative support to their newly qualified lawyers. We worked with them to formulate a ‘virtual PA’ function with eight dedicated PAs based off-site, supporting 200 lawyers, a 25-1 ratio. We found that within two years the younger associates were more motivated as they were able to focus on legal matters while getting 24/7 support from a virtual PA. As a result, the firm saw a significant decline in attrition.

Conclusion: Control the output of the process, not the process itself

We are seeing a paradigm shift across the legal sector in how non-fee earning roles are performed. Whether it’s secretarial support, e-billing, or presentations and creative design, law firms are acknowledging that they need specialist support and that may require outsourcing or recruiting non-lawyer talent into the firm. A key step for that change in mindset is understanding that partnering with specialists increases control of the output. If a law firm owns the output of a process, it doesn’t really matter who operates the process, or where it’s done, because the output is what matters. That’s a fundamental shift that we’re starting to see in the legal sector and the agile working styles of younger lawyers are playing a major part in driving that change.

To find out more, download our 2019-2020 Trends and Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing Survey conducted in partnership with Sandpiper Partners.

How we help

  • Align skills of support staff

    Upskilling support teams to thrive in a digital-first era

  • Improve secretary-to-attorney ratios

    Optimizing staff structure through centralized secretarial support

  • Access scalable resources

    Meeting evolving resource needs through flexible service models


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