Law firms continue to explore how to change the fundamental ways that legal work is structured and supported. This transformation is driven by the shifting legal process in respect to new client demands and the disruption of innovative legal technology.
Firms are starting to adjust how the work is being done in order to boost internal efficiency, and thus profitability, in large part due to what the industry has labeled “NewLaw” — or the rise of alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) — and their model of providing legal service. A fair amount of that adjustment resides in how to properly organize a law firm’s support staff.
Peer Monitor’s Staffing Survey gathers law firm support staff information such as staff-to-lawyer ratios, compensation-per-role and staff-compensation-spend-per-lawyer. The 2017 survey results show the development of law firm support staffing models as the legal services market continues to evolve.
Firms are reducing their overall support-staff-to-lawyer ratio, with the median ratio being reduced by 0.7% in 2016 staffing models, compared to 2015. However, the limited scale of the reduction in support staff indicates that the change in staffing models is more of a reallocation than a true reduction.
Focus on Pricing Support
As the legal industry shifts, law firms are faced with growing client pressure to adapt their pricing strategies. How matters are priced is becoming a central support function within law firms. An ability to evaluate different types of legal work within a matter and apply appropriate pricing models is increasingly valuable to law firms. How valuable? The role of pricing specialists in law firms was the fastest growing support role in 2016.
Although currently concentrated in the largest law firms, the value and role of pricing specialists is starting to head down-market, as is the entire function area of practice group operations where pricing specialists normally sit. In 2016, the largest median growth in the practice group operations support area (e.g., IP docket, legal project management, non-billed litigation support, pricing specialist, etc.) occurred in firms with between 201 and 750 lawyers. It seems that after an adoption by the largest firms over the last few years, slightly smaller firms (in terms of lawyer count) are now beginning to increase the size of their practice group operations support staff.
Technology Continues to Turnover Staffing Models
With a minimal overall reduction in total support staffing but large growth in certain support functions like practice group operations, there naturally were areas in which the cutback in support staff was more pronounced. The shift in staffing for most law firms is from support areas such as Secretarial and Word Processing — roles whose work are most disrupted by technology adoption — into areas that are focused on re-addressing the value proposition model offered by law firms.
The new generation of lawyers is accustomed to drafting their own documents and can manage some of their own administrative work with productivity solutions woven into the responsibilities of simply being a lawyer now. Thus, those roles of legal secretaries are either being expanded into a more proper litigation support type of role, or even with some formal education, a paralegal role.
Just as illustrated by the current market emphasis in pricing support and the extended trend of minimizing legal secretaries, firms will evolve to stay competitive in the current marketplace. Law firms’ staffing models will further shape themselves to support more efficient and cost-effective service models to clients. And with the adoption of current and emerging technologies, design thinking and process in law firms will become central to the future direction of law firm support staffs.