Comments on and Implications of Secretarial Cutbacks in Large Law Firms
Last week in Client Service Lessons from a Large Law Firm Secretarial Cut I wrote about law firm secretarial cutbacks and the implications for client service. Three readers, each an accomplished blogger, commented on the post, which I reproduce here, plus my own observations on their comments.
Firms that cut back on secretaries are doing so, to my mind, almost entirely to save money; improving internal efficiency is a distant second and improving client service isn’t even in the race. They think that “technology” can do the things that secretaries traditionally have done; the problem is they overlook the lawyer management functions that secretaries have almost always performed.
Secretaries, unlike almost any other creature on Earth, can actually get lawyers to do what they’re supposed to do. They chase them down to fill in their time sheets. They push the really important priorities up the lawyer’s to-do list. They remind them about the colleague who’s come to their closed office door three times for a consult. They act as the lawyers’ ambassadors, apologists and oracles for colleagues and clients alike. Secretaries with four, five or six different “bosses” can’t perform many of these functions and will rarely feel inspired to do so anyway.
I suspect that many lawyers don’t put up a lot of resistance to secretarial cutbacks because they’re secretly happy not to be managed anymore. It’s easy to dismiss an Outlook reminder or overlook a scheduled meeting when there’s billable work to be done. Law firms don’t appreciate secretaries’ lawyer management functions half as well as they should, and those that keep cutting back on secretaries will learn how costly that failure really is.
While Jordan’s initial statement may be true in general, I know one firm where it is not: the one I work at (Addleshaw Goddard). We have made significant changes to the secretarial role, driven by the need to improve client service. There has been some technology-driven change (digital dictation, for example) and some cost savings, and those will continue. However, these cannot be separated from our desire to improve client service delivery. (I have looked for published material on the work done by our Secretarial Services team, but I haven’t found any, so I can’t provide any links for you.)
Secretaries that are just doing the same thing they did 5 or 10 years ago probably are “legal dinosaurs.” Their roles have changed as new lawyers are coming out of law school that can type as fast as they can.
I disagree with Jordan that “lawyers don’t put up a lot of resistance to secretarial cutbacks.” They do. The loss hampers their efficiency. They know it. They just can’t show the positive ROI that a good secretary generates.
I agree with Jordan that cost-savings motivate cutbacks but I disagree about lawyers not wanting secretarial nudging. I’m with Doug that many lawyers suffer when they lose a secretary. And Doug’s dinosaur comment is right – the question is what should secretaries do today. Or, more broadly, what support should firms offer lawyers today.
Given flat legal demand and rate pressures today, a growing share of BigLaw revenue comes from alternative fee arrangements (AFA). Well-structured AFAs should motivate firms to utilize lawyer time as efficiently as possible. That means providing the right support and technology. Exactly what that means remains to be defined. In this newly competitive BigLaw market, smart firms will experiment with new approaches and differentiate. That likely will spawn a wider range of approaches to staff and technology support than we saw in the past.
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