I recently had an opportunity to review the results of BigHand’s “The Legal Workflow Management Survey Report”. As president of Unbiased Consulting, an independent consulting firm that specializes in driving efficiency and productivity into legal market firms and organizations – over 700 clients to date – I and my team carry unique perspectives.
To set the stage, I began my career with Arthur Andersen (now Accenture). I remember when our organization moved to secretarial teams around 1989. There was a fair amount of initial grousing, but the organization never looked back.
Moving to my first law firm in 1992, I was surprised to see legal assistant ratios of 1:1 or 2:1. I recall speaking to leadership of my firm – who were immediately dismissive, “that will never work” – and I have been having conversations with law firms for the past 30 years to attempt to drive efficiency adoption.
As such, I found the BigHand US survey results to be quite revealing in light of events occurring over the past 18 months.
One statistic set that I reviewed, where I disagree and believe respondents have under-reported, is that only 30-36% of firms note issues with an uneven distribution of work. Every HR or legal assistant manager that I speak with notes that there are gross inconsistencies in workload, with negative impact to culture, loyalty, employee happiness, stress and turnover. The only way to discover the true distribution of work is by measuring tasks and actual time spent, something that BigHand Workflow software supports. I was struck by the fact that almost half of law firm respondents say that they are manually monitoring work. “Management by Walking Around” is not an accurate measure of work – and we often identify management inaccuracies relative to their perceptions of how busy support team members are vs. the reality. We have performed multiple client studies of staff efficiency/ utilization only for clients to be shocked by the difference of what they “thought” vs. what we actually measured.
The statistic that many firms have temporarily or permanently reduced support staff and over ¾ of respondents say that support staff are being utilized the same or less, sets the stage for a significant change in how support labor should be triaged. Having fewer support personnel adds to an already overstretched workforce. The concept that a single legal assistant can handle work for say, 10+ attorneys is not realistic, without adding unbillable work to the lawyers’ plates. Leveraging a team of support members allows work to be prioritized, triaged and delivered by the most capable staff. We believe strongly in the model of “Right Task, Right Skill” – the lowest cost resource who can adequately complete the work should do the work – and that can only be driven in a pool or work team setting.
Another section of BigHand’s report focuses on the challenges around retirement, recruitment and retention rates among legal support staff. It found that firms are expecting to lose up to 40% of these resources due to retirement in the next 5 years, and up to 40% due to natural attrition. Simply, law firms will have to work differently.
Finally, I applaud the fact that 45% of US firms are planning to implement workflow technology – however, I believe it is not enough. Every firm should be evaluating their support workforce, looking at different ways to deliver services, improve transparency, ensure better balance of work using resource leverage, reducing costs of delivery while improving turnaround and quality. Automation of tasks and workflows is required to be competitive in the evolving legal marketplace.
Dan Safran is president and CEO of Unbiased Consulting, the leading independent consulting firm that focuses on driving productivity and efficiency in law firms and law departments. Dan focuses on working with law firm leadership and operations teams to drive operational improvement, lower costs and improve law firm profit margins. Dan has worked with over 700 legal clients spanning more than 35 years. While Dan is not a lawyer, he moonlights as an Adjunct Professor for the University of Illinois, College of Law, teaching a practical, “business of law” class for soon to be graduating lawyers. Dan is well known as a hands-on, industry thought leader, writing and speaking on improvement opportunities.