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Column: The Midwest Report – As Staffing Models Change, Are More Secretary Buyouts Coming?

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Column: The Midwest Report – As Staffing Models Change, Are More Secretary Buyouts Coming?

By: Dan Scott

When Morgan, Lewis & Bockius confirmed Monday that it’s offering buyouts to its U.S. legal secretaries, it raised the question of whether more firms would be close behind.

As it turns out, consultants said, many other firms have already made moves to streamline their secretarial functions, decrease the number of secretaries per lawyer, and steer new staff hires into multipurpose administrative roles rather than the traditional legal secretary job.

“Let’s not pretend that Morgan Lewis is the only law firm making deep staffing cuts,” said Eric Seeger, a principal at law firm consultancy Altman Weil. “Firms have been rightsizing and reshaping their support staff for more than a dozen years.”

J. Mark Santiago, of SB2 Consultants, said his team has been providing secretarial realignment services to law firms for years. He said the average ratio of attorneys to secretaries is around 3-1, and it’s on the rise.

Legal consultant Marcie Borgal Shunk, of the Tilt Institute, said that ratio has been changing “steadily over the past decade.”

“Some firms are engaging in active changes while others are letting natural attrition and slower hiring organically reduce the ratios,” Shunk said in an email interview. She said some firms are even outsourcing the work, which will likely become more common as law firms continue to specialize.

The shift illustrates a change in “how people work,” Shunk said, as dictation and calendar management by a secretary becomes a thing of the past.

When Morgan, Lewis & Bockius confirmed Monday that it’s offering buyouts to its U.S. legal secretaries, it raised the question of whether more firms would be close behind.

As it turns out, consultants said, many other firms have already made moves to streamline their secretarial functions, decrease the number of secretaries per lawyer, and steer new staff hires into multipurpose administrative roles rather than the traditional legal secretary job.

“Let’s not pretend that Morgan Lewis is the only law firm making deep staffing cuts,” said Eric Seeger, a principal at law firm consultancy Altman Weil. “Firms have been rightsizing and reshaping their support staff for more than a dozen years.”

J. Mark Santiago, of SB2 Consultants, said his team has been providing secretarial realignment services to law firms for years. He said the average ratio of attorneys to secretaries is around 3-1, and it’s on the rise.

Legal consultant Marcie Borgal Shunk, of the Tilt Institute, said that ratio has been changing “steadily over the past decade.”

“Some firms are engaging in active changes while others are letting natural attrition and slower hiring organically reduce the ratios,” Shunk said in an email interview. She said some firms are even outsourcing the work, which will likely become more common as law firms continue to specialize.

The shift illustrates a change in “how people work,” Shunk said, as dictation and calendar management by a secretary becomes a thing of the past.

“Most of the kids coming out of law school today do all of their own typing and documentation,” Santiago said. And half of the work typically done by skilled secretaries actually consists of administrative tasks.

Staff of the Future

In acknowledging the buyout decision, Morgan Lewis said it came about as a result of the firm’s “focus on technology innovation and cost-effective solutions for our clients, as well as the practice needs of our lawyers.” The firm is offering U.S. legal secretaries two weeks of pay for every year of service to the firm.

Meanwhile, Morgan Lewis is currently hiring for a different kind of support staff role—legal practice assistants and administrative practice assistants. That, too, is part of a growing trend.

Dan Scott, a Midwest-based legal recruiter for Angott Search Group, said, “there is and continues to be an ongoing trend in terms of using technology so that admins can do revenue-producing work.”

By way of example, he noted that many large law firms have implemented phone-screening programs, so callers can dial a partner directly and decide whether to answer the call without staff as an in-between. Other firms, he noted, have opened facilities in low-rent locations where data entry and other basic tasks are completed.

“A slew of new roles are appearing in law firms to help support attorney productivity and enhance client value,” Shunk said. “These roles are more about creating stronger value propositions for talent and clients—for example, data and financial analysts, technologists, professional development trainers and strategists, project managers, pricing professionals, and others are all new and evolving opportunities for leveraging attorneys for better outcomes.”

Scott said he has not heard of other mass buyouts or layoffs of legal secretaries. However, he noted, among midmarket law firms, “it happens naturally,” by way of attrition over time, “and it’s probably been happening longer.”

“The need to do more with less, that pressure has been going on for probably 10 years,” Scott said. Meanwhile, resistance toward using technology for efficiency has become a less acceptable attitude at law firms.

“Even as recently as five years ago, a senior person could get away with saying, ‘I’m not into that technology stuff.’ That’s not true today,” Scott said.

Seeger, of Altman Weil, also said firms that take the buyout approach tend to be larger in size. He noted that Morgan Lewis’ offer appears to be designed to appeal to older staff, because those who have been there longer will get more severance pay.

“I think firms are finding when they truly look into it that some of their secretaries are less busy than they thought, and are not always being efficient,” Seeger said.

Santiago said he and his colleagues help firms assess what their secretarial needs actually are and “design a pod system” by which secretaries and administrative assistants are assigned to groups of lawyers.

The roles are different in more than just name. While legal secretaries are often longtime, skilled employees at law firms, administrative assistants are expected to stay in the role just a few years. They’re often recent college graduates looking to gain experience in a professional setting, and their compensation is often half that of a legal secretary, Santiago said.

He pointed to several examples of firms, without naming them outright, that have benefited from this update to their staff structure. One large firm in Philadelphia, for instance, experienced well over $2 million in annual savings as a result, he said.

Shunk said the intentions behind reworking staff vary firm-to-firm, based on their motivations. But the firms that are most successful aren’t simply cutting staff for the sake of the bottom line, she said.

“Firms with an eye toward long-term results will be looking to deploy resources differently, not just reduce expenses,” Shunk said.

 

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