Intelligent Office UK: RIP traditional legal secretary, make room for…?

The traditional legal secretarial role – with a 1:1 or 1:2 fee earner ratio – is an expensive luxury few modern law firms can afford. Nostalgia and kudos may influence limited attractiveness in retaining the role but it’s hard to justify on the basis of efficiency or effectiveness in the delivery of first-class legal services.

Simply stripping out this upper level of executive support or stretching it across more fee earners in a bid to reduce headcount and save cost is short-sighted. Whilst financial forecasts are uncertain as a result of the pandemic, current sentiment from many firms indicates the impact is yet to bite as deeply as initially feared. Whether the full effects are delayed remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, using this timely opportunity to review and assess the requirements of key roles, will ensure that high value resources are focused on high value tasks whilst other administrative responsibilities are being passed to specialist teams or delivered via automated processes.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE SECRETARIAL FUNCTION

Pre-2008, the traditional secretarial role encompassed a broad range of generalist tasks. Typically, no more than two to three fee earners shared the resource which was one hundred percent based onsite and in close proximity to those being supported.

Fast forward to the second decade post millennium which saw the rise of the disaggregated model. Fee earners were supported by a wider mix of skill sets – PA, paralegal, document production and administration – some dedicated resource, some derived from a central, and not necessarily locally-based, team. Fee earner ratios settled at a firm average in the region of 1:5 to 1:8.

2020 PANDEMIC AND BEYOND: MANAGING AN AGILE WORKFORCE

The pandemic has dramatically and more widely accelerated the need to reassess the support function and management of an agile workforce. The optimised model had shifted again with the emphasis on strategic Executive Assistants replacing traditional secretarial roles. The dedicated resource ratio has climbed to 1:10 with more paralegals, administration and specialist roles such as billing and client and matter inception. Many resources have been pooled, with a notable volume located offsite.

Now, law firms must respond to the challenge of how a dispersed workforce can ensure that systems and processes function effectively and with minimum risk.

How can they do this? We’ve identified four factors for consideration:

1.       The widespread enforcement of remote working and by extension, the access of virtual support networks, has broken the final reluctant strangleholds around dedicated onsite resource. Operationally, managers are more easily able to uphold the protocols set by the law firm. Processes are being simplified, paving the way for the introduction of AI which in turn will lead to cost savings. None of this has been possible previously because of the personalised support and individual fee earner requests accommodated by PAs.

2.       For those following government advice to return to work where it is safe to do so, working conditions are likely to be unfamiliar and subject to ongoing adjustments. The introduction of roles such as Intelligent Office’s Executive Floor Hosts smooths the transition, aiding both agile and Covid-19 secure working arrangements. Productivity on office-based days is maximised whilst opportunities to rekindle office culture and morale can also be leveraged.

3.       A further centralisation of support tasks is inevitable: there was already a trend towards it and with fee earners working more flexibly between the office and home, there is less demand for allocated onsite support. It is also easier to maximise efficiencies within centralised teams, compared to equivalent counterparts sitting in sometimes empty offices. Using offsite support services, such as those offered by our Intelligent Service Centres (ISCs), ensures knowledge and capacity are matched to demand and fee earners are effectively supported, regardless of their working location.

4.       Without the physical proximity to daily operations, risk and compliance teams will be increasingly nervous about data breaches and client confidentiality. They must now insist that everyone follows agreed procedures and that any exceptions are reviewed by their team. Although an increased dependence on technology means there is less scope for individual ‘workarounds’ (and therefore greater compliance with approved processes), operations teams need to embed processes that are easy to use, well managed, communicated and regularly updated.

THE WAY FORWARD

Changes to the ‘big ticket’ secretarial function must happen; it’s necessary and potentially daunting, but it is also a significant opportunity to weather not only the fall-out from the pandemic but a once-in-a-generation chance to drive the efficient delivery of legal services well beyond this point.

Intelligent Office leads the implementation of re-engineered support functions for our clients. We have seen first-hand how this has resulted in tangible productivity gains, better service and the ability to support fluctuations in firm-wide or practice area demand, wherever they are executed.

Now is the time to embrace the art of the possible. Intelligent Office has unrivalled experience of delivering the broadest range of outsourced services and solutions that facilitate transformative operational change in the legal sector. If you’d like to join the growing number of law firms who have benefited from our support, get in touch.

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