The modernization of support team structures, centralization of teams, and creation of specialized teams has been of increasing importance in recent years to support higher quality, faster work. We know from previous BigHand surveys, including Time for Change in 2020 and the Legal Support Staff Survey in 2019, that many firms over the past few years restructured their support teams. Many have adapted work delegation practices and leveraged digital technology to achieve a more efficient, equitable and flexible approach.
The majority of firms have made changes. According to PWC, the ratio of lawyers to secretaries has risen across all the Top 100 bandings: Top 10 – 5.9 to 6.7; Top 11-25 – 5.5 to 5.9; top 26-50 – 5.2 to 5.4; and top 51-100 – 4.3 to 5.7.
This latest research confirms that shift, with 39% of NA, 38% of UK saying they have decreased legal support staff by increasing secretary to lawyer ratios. The way support staff are deployed across teams is also changing: 89% of NA, 88% of UK say they have restructured or introduced teams in the last two years. This is a 11% increase for NA and 10% increase for UK since the report findings last year. Furthermore 61% NA and 60% UK say they plan to make more changes in the next two years: creating a support service that is fit for purpose is a priority for all firms looking to futureproof their firm.
Best Practice Approach
Given the new pressures created by the shift to hybrid working and the need to allocate work to the most cost-effective resource, is consensus growing regarding the new best practice model for support services? Over two thirds (69%) of NA, 57% of UK have introduced junior administrative roles. This allows experienced senior individuals to concentrate on more valuable work, ensuring their time is spend on more value-adding activities, while also offering a clear career path for new talent entering the firm.
Firms are also introducing more specialized teams (46% of NA, 51% of UK), which should provide lawyers with a clear route to access specific skills and ensuring support staff receive appropriate tasks.
There is also a growing reliance on outsourcing. Firms are outsourcing specific tasks such as word-processing (48% of NA, 40% of UK), reprographics (39% of NA 34% of UK) and mailing tasks (42% of NA, 39% of UK). In total, the use of outsourcing increased by 12% of NA and 12% of the UK since the report findings last year to 50% of NA, 51% of UK respondents. The addition of these centralized, clearly defined resources should lead to increased efficiency and a far more manageable support function.
In addition to the structural changes to support services outlined above, retraining and upskilling support staff is key. To ensure the expertise is in place to support lawyers and meet staff desires for career development, this should be a priority. Indeed, given the different expectations of the generations outlined previously as well as the growing skill set required by support staff, firms need to take a far more nuanced approach to staff development. Firms need to invest if they are to ensure the right skills are in place for the long term – and it is therefore concerning that less than half (41% of NA, 36% of UK) of firms are committed to retraining and upskilling over the next two years.
Despite the structural changes that have occurred to date, the pace of support service evolution has not been fast enough, especially given the very significant shift in employee expectations that has occurred over the past few years. Hybrid working and a rapid evolution in staff expectations with regard to career development, flexibility and health and well-being support have totally transformed the working landscape. The creation of a modern, flexible and effective support service is now imperative.
How will firms perform if the predicted levels of attrition are realized? How will firms meet commercial needs to optimize client service if support staff numbers are so low that lawyers are compelled to take on more and more administrative tasks themselves? How will firms deals with turnover and the loss of skills it will bring? The performance of a support services team is vital to the performance of a law firm. Change is now imperative to create an effective support service model before it is too late.
This was an excerpt from the report 'Future Proofing Legal Services Delivery with an Efficient Hybrid Support Structure'. Access the full report to dive deeper into the findings from over 800 legal management professionals:
A view into the impact of legal support service models on profitability & efficiency of firms in the hybrid working age: Findings from over 800 legal management professionals in the UK and North America.