Tuesday, April 21, 2015

New ALM Law Firm Staffing Report: Outsourcing Out, Library Staff In, Partners Answering Own Phones?

American Lawyer Legal Intelligence has released a new report “Law Firm Support Staff How Many are Enough?”

"In response to the changing legal landscape, law firms have restructured their staffing of both attorneys and non-attorneys alike.  Law firm management has begun to realize that they can use support staff more strategically within the organization. This survey examines staffing changes and the impact on law firm for the following categories: legal support staff, library services, marketing and business development, office services and litigation support"

The authors of this year's report acknowledge up front the challenge of establishing consistent staff and function definitions that have equivalencies across all law firms. They wonder at what point does  secretarial work morph into paralegal work?   When a report indicates that partners are answering their own phones and doing their own proofreading, one has to wonder if the cost control and staff reductions of the Great Recession haven't "overshot the mark."

At what point is the cost of efficiency too high? At the point where client support is suffering and lawyers are no longer focused on using their "highest and best talents?"
Here are some key findings from the report:

  • Spending on non-attorney staff continued to increase. 47% of firms increased their spending on staff.
  • 62% decreased legal support staff levels.
  • Firms are reducing lower level staff while recruiting staff with more sophisticated skills who are being paid higher salaries.
  • Legal support staff (secretaries and other administrative clerks) continue to be the biggest staffing category.
  • Library Staffing has been impacted by technology more than any other staff function.
  • Outsourcing remains unpopular. Library is the department least likely to be outsourced and litigation support the most likely to be outsourced.
  • Lawyers and paralegals are doing more online research. The report suggests that this research is "being taken away from the library." I completely disagree. Lawyers have been doing their online research for 30 years. Librarians have been freed from routine research and are now able to focus on conducting more sophisticated research and generating analytics on a wide range of non-legal issues to support both the business and practice of law.
  • 34% of firms who had outsourced, brought the work back in-house.
  • IT and office services where the functions that were most often brought back in house after unsuccessful outsourcing.
  • 97% of lawyers screen their own calls. (I wonder if this is because they are relying more on their mobile phones which are not available for secretarial screening.) But it does raise the troubling possibility that downsizing from the recession has pushed clerical work up to partners and impacting both billable time and client support.
  • Litigation support is the function most likely to have increased staffing in the next year.
  • Marketing functions which are most often performed by outside vendors are website design, Public relations and graphic design.

The bottom line is that each firm must find its own balance of efficiency, cost control, staffing and client support. The responses to this year's survey in some ways seem both inconsistent and contradictory, but perhaps this is just a reflection of the varying methods firms are using to reconfigure support (automation vs insourcing vs outsourcing vs downsizing vs upgrading). One size solution does not fit all.

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