Many firms are looking to modernize their support models to adapt to a post-pandemic world.
Who could have predicted our circumstances even five years ago? With the advent of technology and workplace tools that allow teams to work over vast distances remotely, the ushering in of a pandemic, and mergers where big firms swallowed midsize firms and midsize firms partnered with smaller firms, every law firm in the country now has the same challenge: How do we support a global footprint across attorneys in a single firm?
Suddenly, you might find yourself with a 1,100 attorney-firm with offices on both coasts of the United States with other international offices. Does it make sense to have a highly local support model where traditional administration supports four to five attorneys in-house? Or is there a better, more efficient way?
The old, traditional model of legal support staff or one legal secretary who supports a few attorneys has gone the way of the dinosaur in favor of newer staff solutions that include resource hubs and networks of legal staff of various skill sets who handle it all locally, regionally or remotely.
THE NEW FACE OF LEGAL SUPPORT
“Once you start peeling off the requirements of the job and handing them to a resource center, or network, you’re looking for an elevated assistant role, an executive type of assistant operating as a quasi-paralegal, and in some instances, some may have paralegal certifications,” says Ben Schmidt, JD, a consultant with Mattern & Associates.
These legal employees are capable of entry point paralegal work, have ease with technology and may be client facing. Furthermore, they may do document review and finalization, create tasks, perform discovery work, run point on marketing and business development, and keep their attorney’s practice running smoothly so attorneys can focus on billable hours.
The newly created roles intend to delegate admin functions by skillset, improve efficiency across a firm’s workflow and manage client relationships, while keeping the firm financially sound. In other words, welcome to staff models that meet the moment.
“How we got here was an overarching need to increase our efficiencies, to really make sure people were busy, people were well trained, people were being leveraged, and the right resources were doing the right task with a focus on driving more efficient performance,” says Denise Dellaratta, Chief Practice Services Officer at Fox Rothschild, LLP, and an Independent member. The firm created an Attorney Resource Center (ARC) to meet their support needs in 2021.
In the Fox Rothschild model, ARC has a pool of 40 attorney resource specialists who support 350 attorneys. Billing is no longer a part of the legal admin’s job. Instead, it moved to billing specialists.
“But we do everything from soup to nuts in the resource center, including all of the filings — so state, federal, agency filings, as well as document processing, check requests, conflict checks and opening of a new client matter number,” says Karen T. Sargent, CLM, MSHRD, Office Administrator at Fox Rothschild and a member of the Raleigh Durham Chapter.
WHAT DO NEW SUPPORT MODELS LOOK LIKE?
The legal assistant role is often well-compensated, and firms started to lay on many tasks that might be important but not the best use of their skills — like billing or time entry — or the firm’s time and resources, Schmidt explains. In a newer staffing model pool or hub, you’d have someone more suited to each role. Then you could divert other work to your highly compensated assistant.
Central hubs are a common model. They can have a centralized function but may not need to be centralized physically, therefore remote. Other models may include elements of both in-office and remote support.
Some models look at whether they can outsource functions. Rather than create the hub or spoke of a network — such as billing, for example — they prefer to outsource to an entity that does that core function well, like an accounting service. Models may have a mix of outsourced versus in-house or a fully outsourced model for specific functions.
“How we got here was an overarching need to increase our efficiencies, to really make sure people were busy, people were well trained, people were being leveraged, and the right resources were doing the right task with a focus on driving more efficient performance.”
A team model uses teams that handle certain responsibilities and look at different ways to situate those resource specialists. Standard team models may include an admin support team, a practice group team and a document support team that can all work through remote workforce tools.
“There’s a lot of different ways to organize staffing models, and a lot of it depends on your firm’s culture, footprint and needs and how robust of a function you’re looking to [start] up,” says Schmidt. Popular things to create within your model include an administrative center and models that handle time entry, billing, document support services or word processing, graphic design, IT, video and others.
“If you were looking at an old model, you would send all that to your assistant, and that assistant would be required to be highly functional and have advanced word processing plus billing plus other tasks in addition to the client-facing individual who is running point for all of your client interactions,” Schmidt says. That’s a lot to place on one person’s shoulders, given the state of legal practice, so it may make sense to specialize and create departments that handle all these functions separately.
ROLLING OUT A NEW STAFFING MODEL
A lot of the success of a new staffing model depends on its rollout and the change management component of it. “In firms that I’ve either spoken to that have gone down this path or that I’ve worked with who have done this, they have definitely seen success,” says Schmidt. “The ultimate goal is to get the right task to the right person at the right cost.”
For a rollout to be successful, Schmidt says you must explain why it’s happening, which pain points it solves and do the necessary background work required to ensure the system won’t cause too many headaches.
“There are also ways to support attorneys with more support requirements. You have to figure out how to get that into your model. An admin center can handle many functions, but it may not be able to do everything for everyone.”
Dellaratta points out that new staffing models are a constant evolution. Court filing and docketing were two of the functions housed in their ARC at first, but they’ll be removing them to a new regional group soon. You have to be adept and ready to pivot as the need arises.
Working through attorney behavior, expectations and relationships is part of that rollout experience. When you have an attorney working with the same assistant for 35 years, getting buy-in on new staffing models can take time. On the other hand, attorneys have often worked in firms where a hub or resource support center was the norm.
“There are also ways to support attorneys with more support requirements. You have to figure out how to get that into your model,” says Schmidt. “An admin center can handle many functions, but it may not be able to do everything for everyone.” Recognizing that is essential.
Dellaratta says that taking time to engage stakeholders so they understand how their practices work and what they need from their support staff is of the first tasks in thinking about changing to a new staffing model. However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. “More communication on the front end and more investigation would have been super beneficial to us,” she says.
Sargent suggests starting by investing in your employees and training them, regardless of what system or model you’re using now; even if you’re not looking at changing your staffing model immediately, that will pay off in the long term.
“Talk a lot with your attorneys, whether about understanding what they need or reassuring them after you’ve rolled out. Having that relationship with them is huge. Every firm is different, your culture is different, and that has to be factored in to how you design your model.”
Delve further into legal staff models with two of ALA’s recent Roundtables on that very subject. Join ALA members Denise Dellaratta, Jean Durling and Karen Sargent as they discuss these pertinent topics in “Implementing a Legal Assistant Pool, Parts 1 and 2.” Both are available on demand.
About the Author
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based writer who covers business, finance and legal content. Her work appears in Findlaw, Legal Zoom, NextAvenue.org, AARP and many other publications.