September 2003  Volume 29, Issue 6
ABA Law Pracice Management Magazine, September 2003 Issue
       Send Feedback Table of Contents
Trends Report: Support Staff: They're Part of the Team

by Robert W. Denney

Something strange has been happening in a small but growing number of law firms. The cause of the trend has not been identified, although there are unconfirmed reports that these firms' partners may have undergone some mystical conversion. Whatever the impetus, their support staffs are being treated with more than courtesy and respect-they are also being made to feel like they are part of the firm.

The latest Fortune list of "100 Best Companies to Work For" is a notable indication. The annual survey, which places the greatest weight on employee responses, has often included one law firm ranked somewhere down the list. The current survey includes two--the Atlanta firm Alston & Bird, ranked number 3, and Washington, D.C.'s Arnold & Porter, ranked number 60. In addition to providing competitive pay and benefits, what else are these firms doing for their staffs?

Alston & Bird has a very extensive program, which was developed by HR director Cathy Benton. It includes a novel "Spring Break," an annual week of events just for the staff. But the program's most impressive feature is the granting to staff of 15 paid hours a year for community service or, alternatively, an employee may donate those hours to another staff member who has had a catastrophic event in the family.

Arnold & Porter, while not revealing its secrets, pays top salaries, with health insurance premiums pegged to income. Forty percent of the support staff has been with the firm for more than 10 years.

This trend is not limited just to these two large firms.

There is also DKW Law Group, in Pittsburgh. It has held a support staff retreat, conducted by the directors of administration, marketing and human resources, to improve communications, build teamwork and develop new ideas.
And, in a recent review of its committee structure, Schwartz, Cooper, Greenberger & Krauss, in Chicago, reinstituted its Social Committee, consisting of support staff with a partner liaison, to plan firm events for both lawyers and staff.

Also, last year several firms initiated a Halloween dress-up in which staff were encouraged to wear costumes--and many of the lawyers wore them, too, including some partners.

Meetings do matter. There are other law firms demonstrating growing appreciation of, and respect for, support staff in various ways.

In a number of firms, for example, the executive director or administrator holds regular meetings with the support staff. In some firms, the managing partner attends the meetings periodically to report on firm developments and plans for the future.
Plus, realizing the importance of client service and the role that support staff can play in this regard, many partners are now introducing their assistants or secretaries to clients--and keeping those assistants informed about client matters so they can answer clients' questions about the status of their matters. In addition, a few firms are including support staff on their strategic planning committees.

Who knows? Perhaps this trend will become standard operating procedure throughout the legal profession.


Bob Denney ( bob@robertdenney.com) is President of Robert Denney Associates, Inc., providing strategic management and marketing consulting to law firms. He can be reached at (610) 964-1938.