Greenberg Traurig laid off secretaries across the firm Tuesday, including six in Miami, to move to a 4-to-1 ratio of lawyers to secretaries, according to a firm employee.

The 1,700-lawyer firm would not confirm the layoffs, saying that “as a matter of policy we do not discuss departing employees.”

“We have changes in our employee base, either people leaving or joining us, as part of the natural business cycle,” said Greenberg spokeswoman Lourdes Martinez. “We continually evaluate how clients’ needs affect firm staffing and business processes — much like any well-run corporation would do. Like all law firms, we are strategically responding to the changing needs of clients and, as is standard for any billion-dollar business, we have a natural cycle of people joining as well as leaving.”

It’s unknown how many secretaries Greenberg laid off nationally, but six were let go in Miami, the source said. The move was announced at a shareholder meeting in New York two weeks ago.

Not all Greenberg lawyers are affected by the move, however. According to the source, practice group heads like Patricia Menendez-Cambo, chair of Greenberg’s global practice group, has to share her secretary with only one other lawyer. Menendez-Cambo did not return calls for comment.

Applying the change from a 3-to-1 ratio in mathematical ratios, the change without allowances for exceptions would mean the loss of about 140 employees across the firm.

Greenberg’s revenue was nearly flat in 2011, growing just 0.6 of a percent as lawyer headcount dropped 1.3 percent and equity partners 1.6 percent. In 2008, firm executive chairman Cesar Alvarez froze salaries due to a $10 million shortfall in year-end collections, driven in part by client demands for fee discounts. The firm has closely managed its expenses ever since, with Alvarez noting publicly that he expected all Greenberg offices to maintain a no-frills business model.

Role Of Technology

While some Greenberg lawyers privately grumbled about sharing a secretary — sometimes on a different floor — with three other lawyers, industry experts say Greenberg is actually late to the game in pushing the ratio to 4-to-1. When the recession began and clients started pushing for fee discounts, mega-firms and others identified staffing cuts of secretaries, paralegals and even associates as a critical way to reduce costs.

“In the past four or five years all classes of law firms have significantly reduced their secretarial staffs,” said Joe Altonji, a longtime law firm consultant with Chicago-based LawVision Group. “The ones that have done the best are the gigantic firms, the 1,000-lawyer crowd. They have generally jumped from a 2-to-1 ratio to a 4-to-1 ratio. The average for these firms is now in the 4-to-1 range.”

In fact, he said some firms are looking at boosting the lawyer-to-secretary ratio even further to 5- or 6-to-1. With new technology, fewer paper copies and scheduling software, secretaries are starting to become legal dinosaurs, legal experts say.

“What this trend really reflects is the increased abilities of attorneys to handle their own workload,” said Joe Ankus, a longtime Weston, legal recruiter and executive director of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants. “So many of the newer and mid-level attorneys are increasingly flexible and fluent with technology. You can get less support to get more done.”

When Ankus’ father was a lawyer, the standard ratio was 1-to-1, and when Ankus became a young associate at Holland & Knight in 1991, it was 2-to-1. “In the old days, if you were a senior partner, you did not share a secretary,” he said.

Miami-based Akerman Senterfitt, with about 440 lawyers, already has moved to a 4-to-1 secretary-lawyer ratio, according to an Akerman lawyer who did not want to be identified. The firm laid off secretaries to achieve that ratio about three years ago, said the lawyer, who said the current staffing is sufficient.

Holland & Knight, with about 900 lawyers, is at a 3.5-to-1 ratio, according to firm spokeswoman Olivia Martinez. The firm moved from a 2-to-1 ratio about three years ago.

Astigarraga Davis, an 18-lawyer Miami firm, achieved a 4-to-1 ratio without layoffs by keeping the same staff size over the years when hiring new lawyers.

“We don’t do the letters we used to do. We don’t make as many copies as we used to do,” partner Ed Davis noted. “Twenty years ago what was in the purview of a secretary is now in the purview of a lawyer. Technology has changed things.”

One old-school firm, the 70-lawyer Lydecker Diaz based in Miami, has no plans to move away from its 2-to-1 ratio.

“We don’t have any plans to go to 3-to-1,” managing partner Mark Hendricks said. “We believe in quality of life. If you burn people out, they’re going to jump ship. We don’t have any idle hands here.”