“More for less” is the mantra from clients, challenging law firms not just to cut their costs but to deliver more and better services. This productivity challenge, on top of everything else, could leave managing partners wondering where to start.
Understand where you are starting from
Of all the staff in a law firm, secretarial support tends to be a “legacy” workforce. What we mean by this is that recruitment of secretaries has tended to be by individual (looking for chemistry “fit” with the person they are going to be working for, even if that person has since left). In the boom years, the demand for secretaries to fill posts in law firms meant that the role of “legal secretary” eroded to mean simply a secretary working in a law firm, rather than a secretary with specialist knowledge and skills. Very few so called “legal secretaries” are members of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and Pas and the days of sewing affidavits are long gone! Not only has the demand for legal secretarial skills reduced – so has the demand for secretaries. With improved IT, the banks of typists who once bashed out emails as quickly as their fee earners could dictate them have gone.
What’s more, there are few career paths for ambitious legal secretaries, who instead tend to become paralegals or take on additional qualifications such as ILEX. More recently, law graduates have taken secretarial roles as a means of entering the profession, only to move on as soon as better jobs or a training contract present themselves.
Secretaries who have loyally stayed in post for a long time have often developed codependent relationships with partners who are not as IT literate as their younger colleagues. When the partner retires, his secretary may not find it easy to transition to a new role, especially if she finds herself “demoted” to a “float”.
This general downgrading of the role of legal secretary has meant that over time the secretarial team have found themselves viewed as an overhead and vulnerable to cost cutting, rather than an important part of the delivery team.
However, as firms that have cut their secretarial team have found, often the loss is felt by clients and lawyers rather than support level. It is not the typing that is missed necessarily but their ability to move things along. Secretaries form an important part of the business: the “glue” that makes the individual lawyers work better together. Secretaries are good at productivity and project management: “have you called, you need to…”. They will be the enforcers of firm policies and informal “naggers”. They are also often the first line of contact for your firm: the person the client knows he can speak to to get through to lawyer.
But times have changed and just as the role of lawyers and the part they play in the firm needs to be assessed, so does the role of the secretary. It is a given that secretaries can type (so can most lawyers these days). Additional skills and attributes required are attention to detail, project management, people management, client handling etc. In this current environment where change is the new constant, emotional resilience is also key – ability to deal with change, willingness to accept new IT solutions and ways of working. So here’s the first challenge: Do your staff fit this bill? The place to start then, is an honest skills and attitude assessment of your secretarial team: how well are they placed to meet the challenges of the future.
The second and related question to ask is, how engaged is your secretarial team? Given that we have worked in firms where the secretaries effectively ran the business, their influence cannot be underestimated. A disengaged secretarial team can disproportionately affect not only the culture of the firm but also its revenue and profitability. How can you tell? We have a standard questionnaire but a quick glance at your HR statistics will help: if sickness/absenteeism is on the increase, the chances are they are disengaged. Why does it matter? Whilst any organization going through change will expect a dip in engagement, businesses do well to reengage their staff as soon as possible. A Gallup poll conducted across nearly 24,000 business units found that those with engagement in the top quartile averaged 12 per cent higher customer advocacy, 18 per cent higher productivity and 12 per cent higher profitability. There is no reason to think that law firms are different from their clients on this measure.
The third question to ask is: do the secretarial team know what is expected from them? Nothing affects morale like confusion over what is expected. A recent survey into what secretaries wanted from their jobs in one law firm confirmed this to be true. Focus group discussions and survey responses revealed that secretaries want to:
The problems come when there is insufficient role clarity. In the same firm, secretaries were asked "are your fee earners doing work which should be done by a secretary?" 44% said yes. Lawyers were also asked "are you doing work which should be done by a secretary?" - 73% said yes. The tasks that fell in the gap were:
But perhaps more importantly, both lawyers and secretaries knew that the lawyers were doing tasks that should have been done and could have been done (perhaps better and more cost effectively) by a secretary. The lost opportunity cost of having expensive staff doing admin work rather than bringing in work or fee earning dwarfs the savings to be made in cutting overheads.
Need to identify the nature of the role
The role of the secretary has changed over time. In a modern law firm she will be partly:
Lawyer manager (expert upwards delegator/influencer)
Induction trainer for new fee earners/support staff
First point of contact
What are your priorities?
If you were designing in this role from scratch, where would you start and what would your priorities be? Would you decide, for instance, that this is a luxury that you can not afford? Or is it one that you see as critical to the development of the firm? Would better training for the lawyers or fine tuning systems result in a better outcome?
Just like any other overhead cost, secretaries must either be critical to the business (“without them the business could not exist”) e.g. professional indemnity insurance or else positively contribute to the firm’s profitability. Firms can and do exist without secretaries, so consequently it must follow that the reason that they are employed is to improve profitability. We suggest that secretaries can be productivity enablers – people who can both increase revenue of the business and profitability. If they are not in that box, then either you have the wrong secretaries or you are using them in the wrong way.
The question then becomes – what do you want secretaries for? Asking this question usually elicits a number of responses which can then be grouped into boxes:
To provide the admin support so I can do my job better
To do stuff I can’t be bothered to do
To do stuff I don’t know how to do
To do stuff that is my job but she can do better/more cheaply
And so on. You may also find yourself at this stage asking questions about your legal team and whether and how they use their secretaries in the right way!
How much does each secretary cost per hour?
Roughly £27. This is calculated as follows (figures taken from a case study):
Cost of direct employment – £31,500 (average salary, £24,500 plus NI, statutory training, pension, recruitment costs, entertainment budget) although this will be more in London and less in some areas. We divided this figure by 228 working days (assuming 4 weeks holiday, 8 public holidays and no sick days) and 7 hours per day per week (assuming one hour for lunch and no coffee breaks). This gives us £20 or so.
It does not take into account time lost through days off sick, time spent at the printer, chatting or making coffee. If we assume an activity figure of approximately 80% across the year – i.e. your secretary is actively engaged in productive work for 80% of the time –then the per activity hour cost increases to £25.
However, this £25 does not take into account the indirect costs of employment – office, IT, equipment, heating, lighting, support (HR, IT etc), additional benefits, bonus, maternity cover, sickness cover, insurance etc which amount to an average additional cost of £3,000 per secretary. The total cost per hour is therefore closer to £27.
And then there is the opportunity cost – could the resource (money or space) be used for something else?? If you had a spare £34,000, is employing a secretary absolutely the best thing you could do with that money for your business? If your secretaries are not properly trained in client service – what is the cost of that to your business? Do you know?
We think that if you are deciding to spend £34,000 per secretary per year in direct and indirect costs, that you should at the very least be clear about what the return on investment.
How to deliver a return on your investment in secretaries
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