Technology has allowed people to work together in different offices around the country on labor-intensive cases like class actions.
There’s no typing pool anymore.
The clerical and administrative work on legal cases has changed to tasks like legal work by paralegals, basic document review, and creating the formatting on legal documents.
The result is that some law firms have reduced the number of people they employ in clerical roles or the administrative work has changed from taking dictation and filing hard copies in accordion folders to specialized roles like paralegals who can bill for the legal work they do, and jobs in quality control, client satisfaction and retention, practicing attorneys and legal consultants say.
Another trend, they also say, is that administrative professionals are becoming much more efficient in how they spend their time.
Part of Boston-based legal consultant Jeff Coburn’s work is interviewing the legal clients of his law firms’ clients to find out their satisfaction levels. One thing he has learned is that larger firms are under more pressure from their Fortune 1,000 clients to cut costs, said Coburn, managing director of Coburn Consulting.
“The last five years or so there’s been a huge pressure on in-house legal counsel to get accountability for the legal department, which you never used to have 25 years ago,” Coburn said. “It was like a black hole. They spent what they spent.”
According to a survey conducted in March and April 2013 by legal consultancy Altman Weil, 89.7 percent of managing partners or chairs from U.S. law firms with 50 or more lawyers said that the legal market trend of having fewer support staff is permanent (238 firms answered the survey).
The vast majority of respondents also identified price competition, improved efficiencies in legal practice, more commoditized legal work and more contract lawyers as permanent trends.
The survey also reported that 38.6 percent thought they would have fewer support staff in five years, 41.6 percent thought they would have about the same, and 18.9 percent thought they would have more.
Eric A. Seeger, a principal with Altman Weil out of suburban Philadelphia, said the industry standard has changed to have one secretary for every three lawyers or even one secretary for every four or five lawyers.
Clerical jobs that were cut in the five years or so since the Great Recession also won’t be restored, he said.
Twenty years ago, overtime for secretaries would be put on the bills for intensive matters like mergers and acquisitions or litigation, Seeger said. “You would be hard-pressed to get away with that today,” he said. “I think that corporations that examine their legal fees and have billing guidelines pretty much uniformly say that we expect the law firm overhead to be included in the rates that are charged.”
“Clients want templates,” Coburn said for his part. “They want systems [that] … get to the heart of it, which is a document, a jury trial, an opinion or the cost of a merger situation.”
The biggest costs for law firms are the people they employ and the spaces they use for their offices, Seeger said. Reducing staff means not only that law firms save on labor costs but also potentially space costs if they can move into smaller spaces, he said.
“Some of it is driven by clients applying pressure and the fear that more clients will apply pressure,” Seeger said.
The types of clerical services that are being automated include data processing, word graphics and document management, Coburn said.
Another reason that clerical legal work is changing is that people have grown up typing and are used to developing their own documents, George O’Brien Jr., office managing shareholder of employment law firm Littler Mendelson’s Connecticut office, and Seeger said.
“The nature of the administrative assistant job [has changed] from being a typist to sometimes refining the format of materials” that are shared electronically with them, O’Brien said.
Some older, smaller firms are not shifting away as fast from how they use clerical staff, Coburn said, but there are other more recently formed small firms that do intellectual property or are focused on emerging technologies that are much more up to speed.
However, some observers also say that, while more simple administrative roles are being cut, other administrative jobs are being created.
Those jobs include functions in management, organization of the law firm, dealing with clients, getting new clients and delivering legal services more efficiently through paralegals, Coburn said.
“The technology has created jobs as well as made it possible for one person to do things that in the past” required more workers, Seeger said.
An example of a new job created by technology is a regional litigation support specialist for processing documents and for e-discovery, O’Brien said.
Technology also has allowed people to work together in different offices around the country on labor-intensive cases like class actions, O’Brien said.
Other jobs have been created in his firm of more than 1,000 lawyers to provide storage and data processing for clients of e-discovery materials at a lower price than commercial services would charge, O’Brien said.
“We’re able to do that because we’re large enough to do it and we thought [it was] such an important area in any class action litigation and any sizable, document-intensive case, particularly in light of the fact that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure make it so important to take control of the e-discovery issues,” O’Brien said.
Technology also allows administrative staff, including paralegals, to work on the same document at the same time or to split up document review in a particular collection in concert with each other, O’Brien said.
There may be further disruptions in clerical work, O’Brien said, if the technology comes along far enough that documents can be analyzed without having a person individually look at each of them.
Smaller firms too are having the role of their clerical staff change.
Anthony Minchella, a commercial and employment litigator with his own small firm, Minchella & Associates, in Middlebury and vice chair of the Connecticut Bar Association’s small-firm practice management section, said smaller firms are not necessarily ever going to get rid of administrative professionals entirely because there still needs to be a person to handle scheduling, and communications with the court and opposing counsel.
“Having a right-hand person who knows your strengths and weaknesses is critical,” Minchella said. “We’re still running a business.”
But the administrative professional job has changed to run more efficiently, Minchella said. For example, he said searching for a file doesn’t take several minutes of rummaging through file drawers when now it only takes a keyword search in an electronic database.
Minchella, who works with both larger companies and smaller companies, said larger companies are demanding alternative fee arrangements, such as annual retainer programs that pay the same amount each month no matter the amount of work that’s required.
Smaller businesses are not aware that they could be purchasing legal services at a better price, Minchella said, but smaller firms are running their own businesses and are looking to be more efficient in order to reduce their overhead cots. “You’ve got to be an entrepreneur,” he said.