A commentary on BigHand’s 2023 – Report One – Accelerating the Redesign of Support Services

We read, with keen interest, BigHand’s earlier 2023 survey driven report, that identified what many of us in the industry have observed firsthand, that client demand for law firm legal services is down, re-adjusting to pre-COVID supply and demand market dynamics.  The survey notes that 75% of its respondents have identified a drop in demand over the past 12 months – and a continued belief (75% of firms) that law firms believe that client demand will continue to drop in 2024. 

As the leading operational improvement consultants serving the legal industry, Unbiased Consulting  observes the results of this soft demand, as almost all of our firm clients have been focused on cost reduction activities and focus in 2023.  As law firms experienced several years of all time high lawyer remuneration, the focus on reducing spend is viewed as an effective approach to maximize partner compensation.

Seemingly unconnected but expected and identified in BigHand’s 2022 survey, law firm staff attrition is up in 2023.  Legal administrative assistant (formerly named legal secretary) attrition is spiking with most of our clients noting the same trend along with the fact that finding replacement experienced legal assistants, is nearly impossible.  We are working with many clients who report that over 50% of their legals assistants plan to retire over the next five years, and who have shared internal statistics with us that point to 60% or more of the firm’s legal assistants are over age 50. 

While these facts seem disturbing at some level, the reality is that law firm administrative models are old and tired.  Younger lawyers do not need assigned legal support resources and established lawyers are, themselves, aging.

The good news for the industry is that there are answers through process modernization, organizational change and technology adoption, which lead to very significant and material cost savings.

A bit surprising to Unbiased Consulting is that only 26% of the law firms surveyed noted that they “already implemented technology specifically to drive efficiency and profit”.  From our perspective, there are great opportunities for law firms to automate many business components of their practice and support processes and organization.  In the administrative support modernization arena specifically, we find law firms attempting to use electronic mail to manage work and lawyer requests, which leaves significant efficiency, transparency and utilization opportunities under achieved.  We are working with many law firms, between 4500 and 75 lawyers, to drive change.

Our consulting firm does not sell or market technology, however we help our clients identify the right solutions and drive automation as a key component to modernization. 

Last, while the BigHand survey states that approximately 65% of firms are focusing on ensuring the right people (namely lawyers) are allocating work to the right people and have better visibility of who is working on a matter, we find that most firms have not evolved their ability to better utilization administrative staff.  The BigHand survey notes that 59% of firms are looking to find operational efficiencies through better utilization of staff, but we find that the percentage overstates the actual adoption of better utilization of staff.   

Unbiased Consulting observes great untapped opportunities exist at most law firms to improve legal administration ratios, modernize work processes and implement automation that enables greater transparency, improved staff leverage, better utilization and improved ability to load balance the work and leverage staff to perform work based on skills, cost and availability.  We find that these improvements, leveraged with the right automation, lead to material cost savings.  We see law firm’s savings exceeding 25-50% of current administrative support costs, over the next 5 years.