How should law firms support lawyers?

Sounds simple but is it really? Firms can compare their staff ratios or cost as a percent of revenue using survey data. The averages, however, conceal huge variations. For example, I know that three large NYC law firms have lawyer to secretary ratios of 2.9, 4.7, and 6.0. And I’ve seen surveys reporting IT spending as a percent of revenue range from 3% to 7%. Can the extremes both be “right”? Are averages best practices? In my experience, the variations arise randomly, not from objective factors such as practice mix.

To determine what support lawyers need, firms must know what lawyers should do on their own and what they should delegate. Should lawyers dictate or type? Do legal research or delegate it to a research lawyer? Make their own travel plans or use a travel agent? Do their own analysis in Excel or rely on a business analyst? These are hard questions but if firms don’t ask them, how do they know the appropriate support?

If firms do ask these questions, how should they balance the potential tension between what lawyers want and what’s best for the institution? Individual lawyers may well say “do everything for me” but the firm may say “be as self sufficient as possible”.

Could we build a law firm reference staffing model based on clearly articulated principles and reproducible analysis? Would this be helpful? Is anyone aware of any work along these lines?