The results are in: Legal support staffing must be addressed by law firms to successfully transition to hybrid working

This month BigHand released the findings from the largest legal survey of its kind – with over 900 respondents from legal professionals in North America, the UK and APAC with roles across Operations, HR, Support Services, Resource Management and Practice Group Leaders.

When we first assessed the results, the main thing that struck me was the number of firms in every region that are not yet fully prepared for the difficulties that an unprecedented rate of retirement and attrition will have on their support function. The loss of senior talent and the innate knowledge they have of their lawyers working habits and support expectations is a massive challenge. This is only exacerbated by the recruiting challenges firms are facing in trying to replace this loss of talent. When you factor in the difficulties that hybrid working will introduce it becomes a major area of concern.

We first explored the retention and recruiting challenge in a survey we conducted in 2019, which found that firms were expecting to lose 58% of their legal secretaries due to attrition or retirement in the next five years. The latest results confirm that this is still a big problem, with over half (56%) of respondents from North America, and 49% of UK respondents expecting 20% to 40% of their support staff to retire in the next five years.  When you couple that with the 61% (NA) and 64% (UK) expecting to lose another 20-40% through other attrition the numbers really add up!

Then there’s the fact that the traditional legal secretary role is evolving. 60% in NA, 68% in UK and 65% in APAC rated finding like-for-like replacements as a 7 or more out of 10, where 10 is extremely difficult. Part of that change is likely down to an increased desire for flexible working hours.

This is where the data shows a real need for change, and fast. The majority of firms in every region confirmed that their lawyers and support staff are working outside of office hours more, actively embracing flexible working. This is no surprise, and its clear that firms are prioritizing how to support the new normal, with the daily media reports of different firms plans to support their staff’s needs. Take the news this month that Cozen O'Connor will test a hybrid work model this fall, or The Lawyer’s report that Clarke Willmott plans to commit to ‘fully flexible’ working. The changes to working practices are, in many cases, being coupled with permanent structural changes. Fox Rothschild are the latest firm to announce a support staff restructure offering over 300 support staff exit packages, as reported by Bloomberg Law.

However, there still seems to be a significant number of firms without visibility of legal support work, or accurate data around key metrics to support decision making.  36% in NA, 31% in the UK and 36% in APAC cited difficulties in ensuring an even distribution of work between support staff in a hybrid working environment. Additionally, almost half of NA (48%) and UK firms (43%), and a third of APAC firms (33%) are still manually monitoring key support metrics like work type, volume, capacity and utilization, if they are monitoring it at all! With so much unknown, how can firms make informed decisions about the long-term structure and working environments to support their organization?

If firms are going to take on flexible, hybrid working practices in an efficient and cost-effective way, they need data and workflow management technology to underpin the change. Over the last 12 months, there has certainly been a shift, and we have seen more and more firms globally taking on projects to improve efficiency and resilience in their back-office service delivery.

The survey data supports this with 43% on average confirming that they plan to implement workflow technology as a priority over the next 24 months. Those firms that combine support team structural change, with a proper workflow system that provides data to help make informed decisions for the future, will gain the competitive edge and be able to better meet client needs for more efficient and cost-effective support.

You can access the full report here.