Managing Law Firm Secretarial Ratios the Right Way
As support staff layoffs continue at firms, attorneys learn to share resources (National Law Journal, 15 Dec 2008) reports on cutbacks in many firms. One of the points it makes is that many firms are striving to reach a lawyer to secretary ratio of 3 to 1.
That is certainly doable but not all 3:1 situations are the same. Some firms allocate lawyers and secretaries based on a systematic assessment of lawyers’ support needs. Some have even developed new approaches to support, for example, teams or secretarial support centers. When firms increase ratios based on careful analysis and re-defining roles and structures, they can decrease cost while improving support.
Other firms, however, just cut secretaries. Reducing the secretarial ranks – whether by attrition or increasingly by lay-offs – “improves” the secretarial ratio. That’s just simple arithmetic. But that does not mean lawyer needs are being met.
If a secretary serves one senior partner and two junior associates, how much support do the latter get? You might think, “well, those junior associates don’t need all that much support.” That may be true but they do need some and they may not be getting it. And the support they need may be rather document intensive and that may well be a relative weakness for a secretary focused on managing a senior lawyer’s practice.
Not all secretarial shares are created equally. Integreon assists law firms in analyzing support needs and improving how firms support attorneys. This can include streamlining workflows and deploying more or better technology. It can also mean outsourcing legal word processing.
By outsourcing legal word processing, firms can free up secretaries to work on higher value tasks. This supports increasing the secretarial ratio without diminishing support for lawyers. Part of what we do is help make sure the “time slice” each lawyer receives from a secretary is the right size and consists of the right skills.
Support in shares is typically uneven. In the “old days” lawyers had their own secretary or shared roughly equal halves. With the move to 3:1, the shares became much more variable. Sharing between two partners and one associate, the associate would get little; with one partner, each of two associates typically get smaller slices. Extrapolating these same uneven proportions to a 4:1 or 5:1 scenario means some lawyers get very thin slices. At some point, a “time slice” is so thin, delegation no longer is effective.
3:1 Ratios May Not Provide the Support All Lawyers Need
Theory v Reality: support in 3:1 is not evenly distributed. It’s true that junior lawyers often need less – but they often receive even less than they need. As illustrated below, a real one-sixth of a secretary in a team setting may be more support than many lawyers receive in actual 3:1 settings. This can work well for junior lawyers. And it can help law firms reduce operating costs.