The Evolution of Support Staff Structures - Is History Repeating Itself?

For over the last two years, BigHand has been monitoring the evolutionary tale of the pressure on legal support resources. Driven by a multitude of factors - from attrition & retirement and the ongoing recruitment challenge, to hybrid working - it is now largely acknowledged that the traditional support model of PAs assigned to specific lawyers is not sustainable in the long term.

One of the main challenges we have identified, both through our Legal Support Staff surveys and through conversations we are having with clients, is the unfair distribution of work. Without improved visibility of who is allocating work where, how can firms address this imbalance?

Despite this, many law firms are relatively early on in their support staff restructuring. While our most recent survey found that 89% of NA and 88% of UK firms say they have restructured or introduced teams in the last two years, 61% of NA and 60% of UK firms say they have more changes to make in the next two years.

To raise the discussion around how firms are addressing this new world of support staffing, I was delighted to be joined by three of our clients at BigHand’s latest User Conference: Gaby Fischer, Director of Administration at California-based Allen Matkins; Nicola Paffard, Partner and Head of Legal Support Services, Cripps; and David Bennett, Director of IT, Birkett Long.

Gaby Fischer, Director of Administration, Allen Matkins

Nicola Paffard, Partner and Head of Legal Support Services, Cripps

David Bennett, Director of IT, Birkett Long.

What was particularly interesting about this group of panellists was not only their stage of progression in leading structural change enabled by BigHand’s Workflow solution, but also the size of firm they represent and their respective functions within the business - which brought different sets of insight to the table.

Before that though, I can't help but be drawn to a comparison with the early days of digital dictation (Yes, I have been with BigHand for that long!). Before digital dictation became mainstream, task allocation was simply down to who had the tape. Lawyers would physically give a tape to their secretary without knowing what their workload was, or who was busy and who had capacity. When someone was off, firms would hire in a temp. In a way, what we are seeing now is a similar picture, but the tasks are in someone’s email. Yet the significant efficiency gains and cost savings that the industry achieved as a result of refining that analogue workflow using a digital solution, I see those on the horizon again.

Now, back to our panel sessions at the BigHand conference. It was fascinating to hear that, in David’s case, the IT function can absolutely be a catalyst for change. With clients calling for increased transparency over how their legal work is completed and that it is done so by the most cost-effective resource, IT has an opportunity to level the playing field. To make sure that lawyers are not undertaking unnecessary admin themselves rather than navigating an unclear support staff delegation structure. To change the focus from who is delivering the task, to how it is being delivered.

Change management was also a huge topic of debate, and the fact that both Gaby, as a firm Director, and Nicola as a Partner, were heading up their firms’ respective initiatives, gives clear indication that this is an undertaking that is both prioritised at a senior level and that needs considerate handling. The overarching advice our panellists shared was that to aim to achieve 100% adoption would be to aim for failure.

Bear in mind this is a way of working that some lawyers have been used to for a significant length of time, and for some the pain of change may simply be too great. A far greater use of resource and a faster way to achieve significant results, therefore, is to focus on the 80% of lawyers where you’ll see 80% change.

In addition, we must not underestimate the role of the PA in affecting change. By empowering the PA to feel they don’t necessarily have to execute everything that comes across their desk; that they too can make use of a restructured support staffing model, can be a great way to increase adoption and efficiency.

The final insight from the day was an equally interesting one. Each of the firms on our panel was a mid-sized organisation. These issues of talent attrition and recruitment and how to effectively manage work allocation in a hybrid environment; they are universal - and technology can help to support the change management process irrespective of company size.

For more information on our latest Legal Support Staff survey, its findings and how BigHand technology help your firm navigate your way through a restructuring process, click here.

About BigHand Workflow Management

To provide the best client service while supporting your bottom line, it’s vital to ensure your teams are working efficiently and smartly. Ineffective and outdated methods of delegating tasks makes it easy for things to be overlooked, means your workforce isn’t properly optimised, your tasks aren’t being delivered on time, and your bottom line is suffering as a result. BigHand Workflow Management is a task management solution that lets you turn your tasks into fully auditable, digital workflow entries. You can create tasks from voice, email, electronic or paper-based requests – from document production requests to reprographics and travel bookings.

BigHand Workflow Management