A little more than 12 months ago, New York-based Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy confirmed that it would give up its longtime digs in the city’s Financial District for a new office at 55 Hudson Yards, a development being constructed on Manhattan’s West Side.
This week, in anticipation of that move, Milbank issued a statement saying it would offer voluntary buyout packages to its legal secretaries in New York. In the statement, first obtained by Above the Law, the firm said it would start using a “team-based legal support staff model”—or secretarial pools—rather than permanently assigned relationships between lawyers and their secretaries.
“Milbank is transitioning to a team-based legal support staff model, which is in widespread use throughout the industry,” the firm said. “To facilitate this change, the firm has offered its legal secretaries in New York a generous voluntary package that includes an incentive payment, severance commensurate with years of service and paid health benefits.”
Notably, Milbank did not state explicitly that it would reduce its support staff. Instead, the firm said that it “expects the majority of its legal secretaries will move with the firm to Hudson Yards.”
Milbank declined to comment further through a firm spokeswoman.
These days, however, many large firms are shedding administrative staffers and changing the relationships between lawyers and support workers, according to law firm consultants.
“Legal support positions are changing as law firms focus on streamlining operations efficiencies and meeting the needs of cost-conscious clients,” said Jamy Sullivan, executive director of legal search firm Robert Half Legal, in an email. “Paralegal and legal secretary teams are being restructured and they are being asked to support multiple attorneys or practice groups.”
Other changes are also afoot, she said.
“Legal support professionals are taking on more responsibility in addition to their current roles, such as handling accounting and HR duties. As a cost-effective measure, paralegals are doing more work that doesn’t require a licensed lawyer and was previously assigned to junior associates,” Sullivan said. “And, as law firms continually search for ways to cut costs, hybrid or blended paralegal/legal secretary roles have become more common.”
Gone are the days of single lawyer and secretary pairs, as are the times when law firms had the requisite office space to support such a dynamic.
“At most firms, there is no expectation of one-to-one support,” Sullivan wrote. “Attorneys have become more tech-savvy and self-sufficient in terms of their basic legal support needs. Technology also is allowing attorneys to handle tasks that they once delegated to legal secretaries.”
Sullivan noted that at many firms, she’s seeing attorney-to-legal-secretary-staffing ratios of 4:1 or 5:1.
“At larger law firms, for example, it’s normal to see lower ratios—2:1 or 3:1—for partner-level support and higher ratios—6:1 or 7:1—at the associate level,” Sullivan added.
Kent Zimmermann, a legal consultant at the Zeughauser Group, agrees that the trend is less human help for the lawyers. The “general trend” has reduced assistants, particularly since younger lawyers are comfortable with emails, their own document production and scheduling, he said in an email.
And then there are the firms looking outside their four walls for lower-priced support.
“Many firms are going to offsite supplemental back- and middle-office support,” Zimmermann said. He noted that Kentucky, Tampa, Ireland and the Philippines are places around the world where large firms now have offsite, back-office operations.