It wasn’t long ago that attorneys could sit down to sumptuous lunches inside their firms’ private dining rooms. There, staffers—the paralegals, secretaries and other worker bees crucial to the smooth running of a firm’s operations—were nowhere to be seen.

Nowadays, lawyers and professional staff—whose roles have transformed dramatically over the past two decades—find themselves brushing shoulders midday in firms’ open-access cafeterias. “I don’t know a firm that has a lawyer-only dining room anymore,” says Winston & Strawn chief talent officer Sue Manch.

That’s just one telling example of how traditional distinctions between lawyers and staff have collapsed in recent years, as firms have begun to rely on the latter more heavily, from management roles to technology and even litigation support.

“Law firms, and my firm in particular, see professional staff as integral to the entire system of our law practice,” explains Hy Pomerance, the newly minted CTO at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.

Both Pomerance and Manch are the first to hold the CTO role at their firms. The proliferation of these titles demonstrates the increased attention being paid not just to the associate experience, but also to the staff experience. Historically, the latter has been an afterthought, creating what Dechert CTO Alison Bernard—who’s also the first to hold her seat—has called an “upstairs-downstairs culture.”

That’s a fundamental issue for any professional services firm with fee earners and non-fee earners, according to Manch. “These firms are designed to run around fee earners: recruiting them, making them happy and able to work with clients. It’s our business model,” she says. “You can live without a particular staff area for some time, but you can’t live without a practice leader or a person who’s handling a giant case for a firm.”

While that dynamic has not disappeared, it’s being altered by changes in how law firms operate. Lawyers leading firms are increasingly turning to professionals in C-Suite roles to make strategic decisions, not just execute on plans made by others. Further down the pyramid, legal administrative assistants have shifted focus from dictation and typing to partnering with attorneys in areas like billing, communications and client management. They’re handling more litigation support tasks traditionally handled by starting associates, like trial preparation and e-discovery.

“They’ve gone from 100 percent clerical to a much more strategic role,” Manch says. “They add value by making sure the client experience is high-value.”

On the IT side, professionals have been in the driver’s seat, identifying innovations for using data more efficiently that partners have likely not even contemplated.

“We’re not expecting attorneys to figure out what is the best way to do things when you have people who have made a science of process efficiency and process management,” Manch adds.

With staff members taking a more substantive role in firms’ operations, it only makes sense to treat them more like attorneys. That includes both phasing out restricted zones like lawyers-only dining rooms and also making perks and programs more inclusive.

“The movement at Cleary has been toward a blurring of the lines between the legal side of the house and the professional side of the house when it comes to professional development and benefits at the firm,” Pomerance says.

Cleary is investing in two separate tracks of professional development for staffers. One, the technical track, allows staffers to upgrade skills in areas including technology, project management, finance and human resources, so that they can advance in their careers. Employees are supported in their efforts to go outside the firm and gain advanced degrees or certifications to fuel their forward motion. The other, the management track, recognizes that professional staff are being asked to manage at more senior levels than in the past, as senior lawyers devote more attention to practicing law.

Winston & Strawn has similarly collapsed some distinctions in professional development between staff and lawyers. Its new staff curriculum shares the same three core competencies that are also a priority for the firm’s lawyers, even if the performance factors evaluated by the firm differ. And for the first time, senior leadership on the professional staff side is taking part in an intensive management conference focused on skill development.

“To stay competitive for the best people, we have to offer a deep and comprehensive curriculum so that people can get better at what they do and also add qualifications to move to the next level,” Manch says.

The walls are crumbling in other areas, too. It used to be that firmwide events welcoming summer associates were for lawyers only; now, those doors have been opened to staff. At many firms, affinity groups aimed at improving the experience of diverse attorneys were initially conceived for lawyers. Last fall, Reed Smith announced it was relabeling its version as “business inclusion groups” and opening them to all employees. When Dechert in October revamped its parental leave policy, doing away with the distinction between primary and secondary caregivers, it applied the change to staffers as well as associates. And as mandatory arbitration agreements are increasingly proving toxic to incoming ­associates, Kirkland & Ellis and Sidley Austin have garnered headlines for putting an end to the practice for staff as well.

Staffers are also being included as firms take steps to combat what some are calling a mental health crisis in the industry. As part of its 2019 “year of mental health,” Winston & Strawn is holding monthly activities for both lawyers and staff addressing topics like stress management, healthy eating and coping with the challenges that come from working in a high-pressure environment. It has trained more than 20 key staff leaders in mental health first aid. Cleary has embraced the Sibly mental health app for its attorneys and staff and brings in nutrition counselors and health care providers.

“We want to help keep physical and mental health on people’s radar. It’s a real important part of running a successful firm,” Pomerance says. “There’s a correlation between a healthy workforce and a productive workforce.”

Jamy Sullivan, executive director of staffing firm Robert Half Legal, has observed a slew of other perks, both in law firms and corporate legal departments: on-site amenities like fitness facilities and child care, greater telecommuting and compressed work weeks that allow for four 10-hour days, and paid leave for volunteer activities. And firms are likely just scratching the surface. With staffers becoming more crucial to firms’ operations, competition for top performers will intensify.

“You’re going to see organizations be forward-thinking and thought-provoking, not only to attract talent but also to keep talent,” she says.

Email: dpackel@alm.com