What are the long-term effects of reducing legal support for lawyers that law firms should consider now?

During this time of uncertainty, law firms across the globe are facing unprecedented challenges. Like many other businesses, law firms everywhere are now finding their feet in the newly presented circumstances.

From business continuity planning, through to cost saving and maintaining client relationships – a lot of time is being spent on keeping the metaphorical lights on whilst we wait and see what the full impact of COVID-19 will be in the long term.

If we take 2008 as an economic comparison, it’s fair to assume that law firms will – to varying degrees – be striving to trim expenditure where possible. As part of those measures, and with some support staff not able to complete certain tasks away from the office, many firms have already taken action to reduce their legal support in some way – either by restructuring current staff, or taking advantage of temporary furloughing. But what effect does this have on lawyer time in the long term?

Avoiding increased write-offs

If lawyers spend the resulting time having to complete the tasks previously done by that support, those tasks will be a) completed more slowly by a significantly more expensive resource, b) generate more customer pressure on examining bills, and as a result, c) create more time that will ultimately be written off when the law firm decides not to charge its clients for admin hours. It is unlikely that firms will want to be writing off more after this event than they were already doing beforehand.

The work of secretarial and other support teams lowers the cost of delivering legal services. That’s why they exist. Just because legal support teams are now highly distributed and working from home does not mean that law firm customers suddenly want to pay for their lawyer to be doing their own admin or to be spending hours wrestling with styling in a lengthy contract. In fact, the reverse will be probably true.

Delegation is key

If customers collectively pressed hard for better value for money after the financial crisis, this situation will put even more pressure on streamlining non-billable tasks. Delegating non-client-paid-for-work will become even more of a priority, as will ensuring those tasks are being completed at the right cost-base to the business.

This is not a new priority for law firms. Prior to the global pandemic, there was increasing client pressure to do ‘more for less’, resulting in law firms making great strides to streamline administrative work. That groundwork is now more imperative than ever before. There should be a focus on ensuring current support staff are fully utilised for optimal results, while considering the long-term resourcing plan to minimise unnecessary costs when things get back to normal.

For law firms to stay ahead now, having full visibility of the workflow is vital. From understanding which work is being delegated to support teams, what the progress of certain tasks are at any one time, through to being able to move work around to optimise resource capacity. These are the steps needed to ensure that remote working is optimised for support staff and lawyers, and for client service delivery to remain optimal.

Industry commentary

Tara Layman, Head of PA and Administrative Services at global law firm Pinsent Masons:

"Looking back to 2008/09, many firms decided to significantly decrease the number of support staff. This led to ratios of 1:7 – 1:10 in many cases, and saw a drop in the level of support provided to more junior members of the team – support staff tended to focus their efforts on partners and senior team members."

"Juniors were then left without the support they needed to make them truly effective and they are often the ones who now have little delegation skills and spend hours battling with Word styles, booking their travel, or pulling together pre-bills."

"If we let our support staff go now, the senior team members are faced with undertaking more of this work themselves whilst still trying to maintain billing targets – will this mean a higher rate of write offs? Law firms are under continuous client pressure to deliver services effectively and, primarily, cost efficiently."

 “Since the COVID-19 outbreak, our firms are adapting to home working, utilising new technology and implementing refined working practices to enable us to use home-based secretarial resource. By way of example, documentation is still being produced, billing for year end is currently well underway, anti-money laundering support continues, diary management for online meetings is paramount, digital filing and DMS streamlining to facilitate accurate search results, setting up and managing digital data rooms, coordinating information for CRM purposes – all of which we would consider to be adding value to our business."

"All members of the team should be working together to ensure everyone is adding value regardless of location."

Next week we will take a closer look at workflow visibility, and what data law firms should be using to make sure the back office is as efficient as possible for the long term.

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