ALM’s Daily Business Review reported Friday that Greenberg Traurig lays off staff to achieve 4-to-1 attorney-secretary ratio. Firms may find this news startling or old hat. For me, it speaks to the issue of improving law firm service delivery.

The article notes that with “new technology, fewer paper copies and scheduling software, secretaries are starting to become legal dinosaurs, legal experts say.” It also reports some firms are moving to ratios of 5:1 or 6:1.

When firm management contemplates increasing the secretarial ratio, does it consider the impact on client service? I fear not. Few firms systematically consider what support lawyers need. (See my 2009 post Law Firm Staffing Reference Model.) The right level of support depends on how to provide top clients with the best experience.

My experience suggests that secretarial ratios do indeed need to go up. As firms ratchet back on secretaries, however, they must provide other types of support. For example, I know at least one firm that replaced secretaries with recent college graduates; it found the former had skills more closely aligned with lawyers’ actual support requirements.

More generally, lawyers may need less help with documents but more help understanding their clients’ companies and industries. And they need help setting alternative fees and managing projects. As secretarial counts go down, the headcount of pricing experts, project managers, and business researchers must go up.

Simply following other law firms that make cuts – without thinking through the client experience impact – means firms losing a big opportunity to improve client service. Firms should re-think their service delivery approach. As they consider how to improve client experience, they will likely identify both cost-saving opportunities and areas for new investment.

[Additional notes: For more on secretarial ratios, I want to point out that while technology enables a higher ratio, it is not the only factor. For about a decade, firms have had two other options that support higher ratios. First, smart firms off-load heavy word processing to central word processing staff, either in an owned-and-operated center or with an outsourcing company. My 2008 ALA Legal Management magazine article, Dealing with Documents: The Pros and Cons of Outsourcing, explains the benefits of this approach. And second, creating secretarial teams can help improve utilization and service, as discussed in my 2003 Legal Times article The Future of Legal Secretaries.]