The definition of support is changing in large law firms.
After the secretarial staff has been reduced by 66 people, according to the executives at Reed Smith, the remaining people will be retrained into an executive assistant (EA) role by the end of 2021, in which they will be tasked with handling the administrative requirements of the practice areas across the global company are footprint.
In August, Reed Smith executives confirmed the reduction of 44 legal secretaries in the US and 22 in the UK as a result of a November 2020 review of the company’s global support capabilities. In parallel, Fox Rothschild offered takeovers to around 300 employees in June, 57 of whom have accepted the package.
Whether Executive Assistants (EAs) at Reed Smith or Legal Resource Specialists at Fox Rothschild, according to the executives of both firms, newly created roles should offer more efficient workflow efficiency in the delegation of administrative functions, so that lawyers have more time to manage customer relationships.
“We learned and are putting into practice a lot during the pandemic to grow our business and adopt new technology and approaches to the way we work,” said Nick Bagiatis, Reed Smith’s chief operating officer.
“Among other things, we learned that we can support our lawyers and clients virtually,” he added. “Before that we had secretaries who were physically located in our offices, and the pandemic has made us realize that we can let our secretaries work flexibly and support our lawyers very efficiently.”
The Pittsburgh-born global company is now investing in a virtual business resource hub to be used by EAs to delegate repetitive administrative tasks across company departments, Bagiatis said. He compared the EA role to that of an “air traffic controller” who delegates work on behalf of practice groups.
Lawyers, he said, will continue to rely on a single point of contact, their EAs, for billing and expense management, travel arrangements, document creation, and other administrative support functions. But instead of letting EAs do all of the work themselves, Bagiatis says they are responsible for coordinating between company departments to ensure that the task at hand is done.
Bagiatis said the company expects all employees who currently hold the title of legal secretary will fully transition to the EA role by the end of the year. The training, he said, is slated to begin in the fall and will consist of a mix of live workshops and recorded virtual content that will cover time management, improving communication, and facilitating team building and customer service.
Reed Smith’s personnel realignment comes when Fox Rothschild launches a similar initiative.
Called Fox Pro Teams, Fox Rothschild’s new professional support staffing model will consist of former Legal Administrative Assistants, now referred to as Legal Resource Specialists, taking on the administrative needs of more practice groups than they are used to, with said professional development leaders at said professional development leaders the Company.
“The way lawyers work and produce their work has evolved,” said Denise Dellaratta, director of practice support at Fox Rothschild. “The expectation of greater efficiency has led to a refreshed look at all administrative service teams within the company.”
The transition will require administrative staff to be trained in legal skills to handle practice group requirements in the firm’s 27 offices, said Karen Sargent, office administrator for Fox Rothschild’s Raleigh, North Carolina office.
This training is a complement to IT training for legal resource specialists to navigate the automated workflow software that lawyers use to submit administrative assistance requests. These inquiries are now being handled by an Attorney Resource Center (ARC) staffed with resource specialists across the company’s presence, said Sargent, who has taken on the interim role of ARC manager.
“Lawyers have adapted to a more remote, more electronic environment, and that helps ease that structure,” said Sargent.
Law firm advisors and executives interviewed for this article said the convergence of remote work opportunities and the growth of automated legal technology have made many traditional secretarial roles obsolete.
The attorney-to-attorney ratio has gone from about one to one to about six or seven to one now, said Joe Mendola, senior director of sales for Wells Fargo Private Bank Legal Specialty Group.
“The older, traditional role of a legal secretary is as good as gone,” Mendola said. “The secretary of the future needs to have really strong IT skills … and more multitasking than ever before.”
According to a consultant who works with Am Law 100 human resources law firms, many of the severance packages offered law firms were geared towards long-term employees whose salaries rose year on year as many of those office roles were no longer needed . for decades over the year. Some of them might struggle to meet their companies’ evolving technical needs, the consultant said.
“They make reservations, they put papers and things like that. None of this has been required in the past 18 months, ”said the consultant, who spoke to Law.com on condition of anonymity. Hence, “the company executives re-evaluate the employees and say that we do not need these services to function as a law firm”.