How Higher Attorney to Support Staff Ratios May Result in Higher Legal Costs for Clients

Archer & Greiner gave layoff notices last week to 14 attorneys and 27 staff members, the New Jersey Law Journal (reg. req.) reports. Their last day of work will be April 1. The layoffs will bring the ratio of lawyers to secretaries from 2:1 to 4:1″ – ABA Law News Now, March 12, 2013

When law firms like many corporations were laying off staff during the height of the great recession a few years ago, I noted that law firm support staff were being terminated at a rate of 2:1 in terms of support staff to attorneys layoffs.   Apparently this support staff to attorney layoff ratio is becoming a trend.

In fact, one might say that a support staff ratio of 4:1 is becoming the “new normal” at many law firms.  Discussions I have had with attorneys around the country have confirmed this.  In fact, one attorney friend who is on the management committee of a mid-sized firm notes while his firm is not laying off staff, they are not filling support staff vacancies in order to get to this 4:1 attorneys to staff ratio.

Moving from a 2:1 to a 4:1 attorney to support staff ratio is a big jump and it begs a big question.  What happens to all the work that the additional support staff did for the attorneys?  Did the practice of law suddenly change so that less support staff is required?  Does the use of “technology” suddenly make support staff twice as efficient as just as few years ago?  Or is there another answer to this question?

If you review legal bills throughout the U.S. from both large and small firms as I do, you do see very clearly the answer to what happens when you reduce support staff.  What you actually see is more attorneys now are taking on (and billing for) work traditionally done by paralegals and paralegals now are taking on work (and billing for) work traditionally done by legal secretaries.

I have blogged about the issue of “inappropriate staffing” several times in the past.  I noted that my past data indicated that inappropriate staffing (i.e., attorneys doing work that can be done by paralegals and paralegals doing work that can be done by non-billing support staff) can add up to 6% more in additional legal costs.  My more recent data indicates that where inappropriate staffing occurs, it can account for 8% in additional legal costs.

While inappropriate staffing can be costly to clients, inappropriate staffing is not hard to spot.  In fact, it is relatively easy to spot.  So easy in fact, I often refer to it as the “low hanging fruit” of legal bill reviews.  If you want to learn an easy way to tell the difference between “paralegal” and “secretarial” work without having to come up with a lengthy list of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, read (or re-read) my blog piece, “To Determine What Paralegals May or May Not Bill For,  Try Applying the “Perry Mason” Test.”

If you ever have a question on whether a billed for task by an attorney (or paralegal) could be handled by lower billing or non-billing support staff or just want to kick around a legal billing issue, please feel to contact me.  I am always happy to try to answer individual questions or just discuss the art and science of legal bill review which just happens to be the sub-title of this blog.

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