The specific motivations leading a law firm to outsource some or all of its support functions to a facilities management vendor are varied. My firm is now in the fourth year of a facilities management contract with a vendor that provides a broad variety of support services. The frustrations and limitations that led to our outsourcing those operations were many, and included some pain points.

Firm lore includes a story (which I have been assured is not apocryphal) that one of our early and desperately-needed file room employees was drafted by a senior partner who happened to share an elevator ride: "Would you like to work in our file room?" was the sum total of the job interview.

(Throughout this piece, I use "file room" as the generic description of the operation that provides copying, filing, mailing, facilities and other logistical support to our firm.)

These are difficult positions to staff. Entry-level pay is low, hours can be long and working conditions can be stressful. Those conditions also lead to difficulty in maintaining ongoing adequate staffing levels; in our case, "callouts" were frequent and were occasionally multiple, leaving a support operation seriously understaffed or even unstaffed.

Staff will bolt for the first opportunity that provides improved pay and/or a less stressful work environment. In our case, several of our file room staff were students who left when it became time for that first "grown-up" job.

The process of recruiting file room staff to fill vacancies resulting from high turnover was fraught with peril. Running our own help-wanted ads resulted in a flood of hundreds of résumés, all requiring evaluation. Hiring someone with a "connection" to the firm becomes the path of least resistance and succumbing to that temptation led to uncomfortable situations when the hire did not work out.

We also noticed our file room personnel were self-selecting into specialties based on length of time in service: The more seniority you had, the plummier your job. New hires were making office rounds and hand deliveries — particularly in bad weather — while more senior staff might be at a desk all day, filing. Thus, one employee was known as the filing person; another was the copy machine wizard. The result? Work waiting for completion until the specialist was free.

A consequence of that specialization was the development of job queues in each area of the file room operation, each queue serviced by that area’s specialist. Because those queues were serviced at varying tempos, we found, for example, filing severely backed up, while the copy job inbox was clear. The de facto specialization seemed to prevent staff from crossing over to handle work in a different specialty.

We found our legal secretaries, paralegals and attorneys adopting an "I’ll just do it myself" attitude when faced with tight deadlines or critical accuracy requirements. Don’t think your paralegals and other support staff aren’t thinking about this while they’re feeding papers into a machine: "I could be doing so many other more important things right now." It is an express point of job dissatisfaction revealed to me in more than one interview.

Handling the file room’s staffing, resource contention and performance issues was taking away time from other key administrative functions. The tail was wagging the dog. The firm concluded it was time for the back of the house to grow up and match the front of the house in both capability and execution.

We solicited proposals from four facilities management vendors operating in Philadelphia and presented them with what we thought was a largely garden-variety list of requirements. To our surprise, two of these requests were met with objections and ultimately resulted in a potential vendor having to drop out of the competition. The first was the requirement that the vendor’s staff be ready, willing and able to handle personal errands. The other was the handling of our existing file room personnel; we certainly did not want them summarily discharged, but offered a transition plan into the new operation. We wanted one individual brought into the new operation and the other offered an off-site position in the vendor’s organization.

The successful vendor was selected based on multiple factors: We were familiar with and used their off-site production center and were satisfied with its performance; we had an opportunity to identify and contact current facilities management customers from their entire customer list; those reference contacts gave uniformly glowing reviews; we were satisfied with the transition plan for our current employees; and unit cost per employee, particularly in the initial contract term, was competitive with other proposals.

Because one of our existing employees transferred to the facilities management vendor’s payroll while remaining in-house, our institutional memory was available at all times during the transition process, easing the process for both the firm and the vendor.

Four years later, here’s how some of those specific pain points were eased:

Our facilities management vendor committed to a fixed staffing level. If personnel are absent, the vendor ensures that our full complement is available. In our case, fill-in personnel often come from the vendor’s off-site production center, have been rotated through our firm before and are familiar with the firm’s operations. I’ve heard horror stories of facilities management vendors meeting contractual staffing levels with less-than-satisfactory personnel from temporary employment agencies, with predictable results.

While we are no longer directly responsible for identifying, recruiting and retaining our file room personnel, we continue to have input in the evaluation of the vendor’s staff. On several occasions, our vendor provided personnel who were not successful in our environment. When brought to their attention, they have been very willing to take our viewpoint into account and make staff changes as needed.

The era of specialization is dead. Every person in the file room operation is equally versed in all aspects of the operation. As a result, job queues are rapidly emptied in the order the jobs appear, without diversion to a specialist. This also allows our facilities management vendor the flexibility to deploy resources as needed. If two people are required to "load in" a courtroom for trial, all work will continue to be completed back at the office.

As the overall level of performance improved, our legal secretaries, paralegals and attorneys have come to rely on the file room staff for both a greater quantity and higher quality of tasks. This frees our "knowledge workers" for substantive work. Nothing should more incense firm management than seeing a highly skilled (and compensated) paralegal feeding paper into a machine, particularly if better alternatives exist.

One of the more interesting questions posed to me about our firm’s facilities management experience was, "Is there any confusion about who they work for?" In our case, the answer is no, and I believe that results from the continuity provided by the retained employee, a strong facilities management site supervisor, as well as the healthy and supportive organizational cultures in place at both our firms. •