Clients must pay attention to how their law firms work. More savings may flow from changing how lawyers work than from bargaining down rates. BigLaw firms are cutting staff. Are the changes good for general counsels?

The demand for legal services has plummeted, so laying-off lawyers and staff is a painful necessity. But do some lay-offs lead to better value for clients than others? To make this big topic manageable, let’s focus on secretaries. Since lawyers started using PCs almost two decades ago, thus changing how they use secretaries, few law firms have rationally managed the lawyer to secretary ratio.

Legal secretaries, other law firm workers getting laid off (Philadelphia Business Journal, 20 Feb 2009) reminds us of this. For example, Cozen O’Connor CEO Tad Decker says the firm “had a lawyer-to-secretary ratio of less than 2-to-1 and the layoffs will allow the firm to assume a ratio more in line with its competitors.” In my view, ratios of less than 2:1 typically suggest a firm has not been managing its secretaries well.

From a client perspective, however, potential secretarial over-staffing is not a problem and may even be a benefit because it may mean lawyers bill less time for ministerial work that they delegate to secretaries.

The opposite, however, is not true. Clients should care if law firms have too few secretaries. The article quotes recruiters who say some firms are now moving to 4:1. This may be too little support. If so, lawyers might bill for work that they could otherwise easily delegate: typing, formatting, scheduling, preparing overnight parcels, etc. Clients could end up paying more than they should.

There may not be a magically correct ratio but it is clear that firms should analyze needs and staff consciously to make sure lawyers receive the right level of support. For those interested in more on this topic, see