Seldom do firms consciously decide (1) the level of staff support they should provide to lawyers in their practices and (2) how best to provide that support. Headcounts by type of function seem like artifacts of history and management idiosyncrasy. For example, in larger firms the lawyer-to-secretary ratio ranges from 2:1 to 6:1, and IT spending as a percent of revenue ranges from 3.5 percent to 7 percent. It’s hard to explain these big variations, especially in otherwise similar firms.
Tough economic times will compound the irrationality as more firms continue to lay off lawyers and staff. But what if firms use the crisis as an opportunity to rethink and rationalize support? Why not aim to improve long-term performance while you reduce short-term costs in your firm?
Be purposeful in determining the support your lawyers really need and how best to provide it. If your firm operates multiple offices, get past the argument that all support teams must be in the same physical location as lawyers. Once you’re free of the “same building” shackles, you can think more creatively about support. Perhaps it makes sense to centralize some functions in one office. (Orrick, for example, has a global operations center in low-cost West Virginia.) Or perhaps you can rid yourself of the headache of owning and operating certain support service teams and let an outsourcer do it for you. (Firms of all sizes are out-sourcing legal transcription, research and document review—both within the States and offshore. See the July/August 2008 Law Practice article “Outsourcing Legal Services Abroad” for examples.)
Or you might cut costs by using VAs or turning services like billing or payroll over to a third party. Think about the optional routes for a firm of your size—and how you can get the support you need at a lower cost.